The blame for the tragedy, which sparked a massive nationwide rescue operation this week, can be laid on the Sol Plaatje Municipality in Kimberley, where ailing sewage infrastructure has been non-functional for the past decade, maintains BirdLife South Africa.
“While the area is experiencing a drought, the main cause is the limited inflow of sewage water into the Homevale waste water treatment works, from where, after being treated, the water should run into the wetland,” it stated, adding that, instead, untreated effluent was flowing into the veld.
By Thursday, about 1800 birds had been sent to rehabilitation facilities across the country, of which a third had perished. “The mortalities are not unexpected, and survival will improve from now on,” said Mark Anderson, chief executive.
While the unfolding drought was exacerbating the crisis, the bigger problem was the failures of Homevale.
“If all the sewage and water runoff reached Homevale and was discharged into Kamfers Dam, it would always hold some water and not dry up,” said Tania Anderson, an ecologist who monitors the dam, “unless water restrictions become so severe flushing toilets is no longer allowed.”
Kamfers Dam, a 500 hectare perennial wetland, is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area, and is one of only four sites in the world where the near-threatened lesser flamingos breed.
“This wetland was an ephemeral pan but is now permanently inundated as it receives most of Kimberley’s effluent water,” write Mark Anderson and Tania Anderson, in a paper on the lesser flamingo at the dam.
The flamingo island, constructed by Ekapa Mining in 2006, supports the largest permanent population of lesser flamingos in southern Africa - with more than 80000 birds present at times - and is their only breeding site in South Africa.
She said the municipality demarcated the area a green zone and sensitive habitat, called the Kamfers Dam Conservancy, and mapped it as a “declared conservation area” to be protected from developments in its Integrated Development Plan and Spatial Development Framework (SDF) of 2017-2022. “They haven’t provided objectives or obligations for action for this sub-area/zone as they did in their previous SDF of 2008-2012.”
One of the responsibilities of the previous SDF had as its objective, ”to protect and enhance the flamingo conservancy”. “Over the past 10 years they have failed to develop a conservancy plan and implement the water level management recommendations provided by experts in 2006,” she said.
“They did some upgrading of Homevale to work to its capacity and extend the capacity, but not enough to handle 40 megalitres per day of sewage and other water runoff. It has not been operating well all the time, with many problems and leaks and definitely not working to contribute to maintaining ideal conditions to support the flamingos.
“After Kamfers Dam flooded in 2010/2011 seriously risking the integrity of the railway lines and flooding the flamingo breeding island, they developed plans to pump the excess water that could not be handled by Homevale to another pan (Langleg) closer to the Vaal River. This was finally completed in 2014.
“Then they pumped all of the incoming water away and the dam dried up totally in 2016. In 2013, sewage leaks led to stagnant sewage effluent ponds forming near Homevale and caused an outbreak of Botulism that killed off many flamingos and other waterbirds.”
The dysfunctional pump stations and the main sewage line from Gogga pump station to Homevale had been leaking most of the sewage into the veld and into the Platfontein pans, which were “pristine and ephemeral” for more than four years, she said.
“The ecology of these pans is totally changed and are being polluted.”
The Department of Water and Sanitation said yesterday the municipality “is not obligated to fill Kamfers Dam”. However, it issued it with a directive on January 7, “to address various sewage spillages in the larger Kimberley, non-functionality of Gogga pump station and poor operation and maintenance of the Homevale wastewater treatment works”.
Municipal spokesperson Sello Matsie said: “Last June, we appointed a contractor because the line that is carrying sewer caved in a multiple areas. It is corroded. This has reduced the amount of water reaching Homevale. We had to divert the spillages to the open veld.”
He said it had spent around R366 million since 2008 to refurbish Homevale, extend its capacity and construct a sludge dewatering plant, among others.
“The area is also very dry and we haven’t had any good rains. Kimberley is very hot and parts of Kamfers Dam are evaporating. It’s a serious situation.”