Willem Snyman, a water activist, shows the pollution tainting the Hennops River. File photo: Thobile Mathonsi/African News Agency (ANA).
Willem Snyman couldn’t believe his eyes. A stinking sea of thick white foam, speckled black, covered part of the heavily polluted Hennops River.

“It looks like something out of a space movie,” the water activist said, incredulous, as he watched how the foam moved like “an apocalyptic surreal creature”.

The wind whipped up large, foul blobs into the air, where they floated like plastic.

“When we came here last week to discuss the installation of a litter trap to try to catch the huge volumes of plastics coming downriver, the foam was man-height. Now it’s double that,” said the frustrated Snyman, standing alongside the foam-filled weir in Ekurhuleni.

“This has been going on for the past three to four months and it’s just getting worse.”

Snyman, who runs the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops (Fresh), a small non-profit that works to clean pollution in the river, blamed the Olifantsfontein wastewater treatment works in Ekurhuleni, about 2km upstream, for the mess.

“This is a sewage foam,” he maintained. “Nothing else looks this.”

Downstream, trash coated the riverbanks. “This place sums up the crisis of the Hennops - the massive amounts of foam and trash that fill the river.”

Later, Snyman trekked through the dense tangle of weeds on an expansive community farm on the banks of the river, to access the plant’s “unmonitored” outlet pipe.

“The smell of sewage really bothers us,” remarked Nkosinathi Nkuna as he and other farmers harvested morogo for sale in town. 

“When it’s really hot, it stinks and the flies come.”

At the outlet pipe, Snyman said it was the origin of much pollution. The surrounding water is dense with white foam and a putrid smell. A foul grey foam filled liquid is being discharged into the river.

“This plant has been doing this for a decade, killing all life in the Hennops. Nobody is being held accountable. We pay them R10 million a month to do the job, but the only thing that comes out is poo, filth and lies. Why can’t they just do a proper job?”

The East Rand Water Care Company (Erwat), which runs the Olifantsfontein plant, acknowledged it was experiencing “capacity challenges” as parts of its plant had been built on a dolomitic area.

“This was discovered over a year ago, when Erwat undertook subsequent geotechnical studies, upon noticing a tilt of the primary settling tank (PST). The PST was then condemned and thus removed from the process. This results in the plant producing water that is below quality.

“Funding has been made available by City of Ekurhuleni, which owns Erwat, to address the capacity challenges at the plant. The project to restore the capacity of the plant has been initiated and it is anticipated for completion in 2022. The first phase of the project, which is meant to alleviate the pressure to a large extent, is anticipated to be completed in June 2020.”

The company remained “committed to sustainable water management, and we always endeavour to comply to the licence conditions as required”.

Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), said it was concerned about the state of the river.

“The DWS is engaging with the City of Ekurhuleni and Erwat, to raise the concerns and instruct Erwat to bring the works to optimal operation,” said Ratau. “Erwat proposed a programme of action to the DWS but the plan is inadequate as it is more long term and wouldn’t address the immediate concerns. The DWS thus instructed Erwat to rework its plan.

“Once Erwat provides the reworked plan to the DWS, the department will make a decision whether to accept. The decision will then determine the next line of action.”

In 2016, the DWS issued a directive against Erwat for pollution emanating from the treatment plant.

Last week, Snyman appealed to Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti to address the “deepening crisis” of the Hennops River. 

It has been dubbed the “river of faeces” because of failing wastewater treatment works and continual sewage spills from broken municipal infrastructure.

“They (Erwat) blame a new primary settling tank incapacitated here, being built on a sinkhole in a recent upgrade due to improper geo-surveying, and industrial effluent from factories,” he wrote in his letter to Nkwinti. “Why this wastewater treatment works has been constantly struggling is still unclear. A monthly budget of R10 million should deliver a better quality effluent.”

Snyman said the monitored statistics on the DWS’s Integrated Regulatory Information System (Iris) website showed the plant was under capacity.

“The graphs also show the Hartebeestfontein wastewater effluent is only about 5% better - situated above the Rietvlei Dam Nature Reserve, a large source of drinking water for Centurion, purified at great cost.”

In his letter, Snyman told Nkwinti of Fresh’s monthly riverside clean-ups, to tackle solid waste in the Hennops.

“The awareness has been growing, attracting hundreds of volunteers each time, while tons of waste has been removed.

“Pollution from Ekurhuleni flows into Tshwane and further downstream, yet now Erwat is to help in the Vaal crisis while another crisis in the Limpopo River is being caused. As taxpayers funding this destruction, we request positive action in this ongoing health crisis of the Hennops, polluting the Hartbeespoort Dam, Crocodile and the Limpopo rivers all used for drinking water and irrigation by millions.

“Lower down the Hennops, the Sunderland Ridge wastewater treatment works in Tshwane, had again been hit by cable thieves. It’s just been (offline) for eight days again. The main cable runs through a long unprotected area outside the plant from a substation, it has been stolen almost a 100 times.”

The Hennops was Gauteng’s longest and most natural river, fed by numerous strong fountains that kept it at a constant level, he wrote.

“The damage that has been done to the environment must be repaired - the Hennops was until recently a pristine ecosystem. This ancient fountain-fed aquatic system has in the last decade become a lifeless wasteland.

“Dead rivers are very hard to restore, while living ones are the arteries of our world, effective water filters and lifelines for endangered species and our people.”