Brown water flows from Parys taps
Johannesburg - The glass of water that Maki Mochologi pours is still warm - she boiled it a few minutes ago.
With a practised eye, the 58-year-old, sitting in her neat kitchen in Tumahole, a township in Parys, Free State watches as brown filaments and specks of sand swirl and settle at the bottom of the glass.
“You can see how dirty this water is. It stinks of peepee and poofies,” she says, wrinkling her nose in disgust. “Sometimes, there are small black goggas and worms in the water.”
A collection of buckets are stacked under a table, which she fills with municipal water. “Just look at how dirty my kettle is from boiling this water,” says Mochologi, running a slime-coated finger inside her kettle. “We have to use so much electricity to try get the water clean.”
Behind a door are a stack of “clean buckets” she uses to collect water from a borehole, several kilometres away.
“I never mix the buckets. I use my clean water I get from the borehole for drinking and cooking. But the borehole is far and sometimes I must use the tap water with Jik ... This is how we have to live in Parys.”
Mochologi looks after her 9-month-old granddaughter and worries about bathing her with the municipal water.
“See these sores on her back? I don’t know if it’s from the water, but I have the same sores on my fingers.
“I only use borehole water for her bottle and to cook her food. She will be very sick if I have to use the tap water. Sometimes, when her mom has money she buys purified water from town for the baby ... It’s just heaven’s arms that hold us with this poison we have to drink in Parys.”
Mochologi maintains Parys’ water problems have persisted for years. “Since I moved back in 2014, it’s been like this. The water is vuil,” she spits.
Resident Eunice Mutlanyana agrees. “Sometimes, you can find it’s a bit clean but most of the time the water is brown. You won’t know until you open your tap.”
At his guest-house on the scenic fringes of the tourist town, Johan de Klerk of the Vaal Action Group (VAG) flicks through his phone. “See these photos that people send me of their brown tap water? This is from people who can maybe afford to buy clean water, but what about the poor people who can’t?”
VAG was set up as a voluntary association to prevent the pollution of the Vaal River and to help the embattled Ngwathe local municipality following a major fish kill in June 2018.
“The intention was not police people but to assist where necessary. But it’s just been one frustration to the next. The problems are escalating.”
De Klerk believes the sewage pollution crisis in nearby Emfuleni “set the standard for acceptance”.
“Nothing happens. Nothing gets done. The officials there don’t get brought into line so that becomes the norm.”
He walks to the Vaal River, which flows alongside his property. “See all that foam, it’s the pollution ... There are so many signs of how polluted this river is.
“... Are we going to wait until one morning when we wake up and thousands of people will be running to hospital? This is serious. It’s not a little bit of sewage from a broken pipe here, or a few chemicals there. This problem is immense.”
In November, the VAG sent a legal memorandum to the municipality, its mayor and senior officials. “We still haven’t heard a word,” says De Klerk.
The memorandum states how a court order was granted against Ngwathe by Save the Vaal Environment in the Free State High Court in 2010.
“Despite the court order being granted nearly nine years ago, Ngwathe has neglected and or failed properly to maintain its sewage reticulation and treatment works, resulting in continuous and or recurring spills of raw sewage into the river,” it reads.
The memorandum describes recurring sewage spills from the municipality’s six sewage pump stations. “Unfortunately Ngwathe has persistently neglected and/or refused to attend to incidents reported by VAG and community members ... If, however, the issues cannot be resolved, VAG will be compelled to approach the high court for assistance,” it declares.
Johann Tempelhoff, an extraordinary professor at the South African Water History Archival Repository at North West University, says Parys was hard hit by Emfuleni’s wastewater spillages two years ago.
“June 2018 was an environmental disaster. Local residents of Parys, as well as the tourist industry along the Vredefort Dome area, were particularly affected.”
“Up to the present, an estimated 1200Ml of untreated wastewater flows into the Vaal River Barrage, from the Rietspruit, into the Loch and from the Barrage downstream in the direction of Parys.” The Rietspruit has been described as a “sewage sludge pond”.
“Although there are a number of weirs downstream, these low-level damming sites are unable to contain all the wastewater flowing downstream,” he says.
Late rains have affected the Vaal Dam. “Therefore, the Department of Water and Sanitation will try to conserve water, instead of using it to flush the Barrage. The state of affairs in Parys would undoubtedly be influenced by what is happening upstream.”
Parys, he says, is left “much to its own devices. What with population growth and the growing demand for water, there are bound to be some terrifying stories emerging of domestic water consumers facing water-quality challenges”.
In her kitchen in Parys, Amanda Marais* shows how she cooks her evening supper using bottled water.
“On Saturday our water was so brown, but I had to have a bath. I just poured Dettol in,” she shrugs. “You get used to this in Parys.”
Municipal spokesman Steve Naale says the municipality has appointed a professional service provider to deal with water quality “as an indication of how urgent the matter is”.
“The municipality is performing water-quality tests as per SANS 241 and has started a process to employ skilled personnel to beef up the present personnel. The Trident plant has been put out for repairs and scheduled to be restored in March 2020 to supplement water supply. The municipality has established a water services task team led by the executive mayor, consisting of councillors even from opposition parties and senior municipal officials, which is open to all interested parties who want to contribute positively.”
Naale says the municipality is talking to provincial and national departments including Rand Water, about medium- to long-term interventions.
“The present water treatment works requires a pre-treatment plant, DAF unit to further improve water quality. The water team is constantly implementing ward-based rapid response system as part of monitoring quality and quantity of water being distributed,” he says.
Water expert Dr Anthony Turton sees Parys as an example of state failure. “What we are seeing in SA is that state failure happens at local municipal level.
“When a municipality is unable to self-correct, failure is an inevitable outcome. When failure occurs, we have a zombie municipality, staffed by people that draw salaries, but unable to effect any solutions.
“They become redundant in reality, but still cost centres to the taxpayer. One distinct aspect of state failure at local level is the inability of the municipality to collect revenues or pay debts. This results in cumulative debt to state-owned enterprises (SOE) like water boards or Eskom.
“That local failure is exacerbated when the national level structures fail to intervene before catastrophic collapse occurs. This cascades upwards from municipal to provincial to national level like dominoes.
“The Parys case is no different from the Emfuleni case, or Makhanda, or the Harrismith case. Each failure is an empirical manifestation of the inability to self-correct. Once enough local level failures occur, the inevitable outcome is state failure at national level.
“Think of a fire that produces its own oxygen so it becomes unstoppable. This is what we are seeing. The next probable threshold is likely to be the outbreak of disease on a scale unprecedented in our history.”
Promise of relief for Parys
There is “light at the end of the tunnel for Parys’ water problems,” believes Saal de Jager of the Ngwathe Water Forum.
“The municipality is doing something to employ people with good qualifications - qualified water process controllers - to look after their processes,” he said.
“But I did tell the municipal manager the other day, you can have all these qualified people at the water plant, if there’s not a will to change it, the same problems will continue.”
Parys’ water shortages and water quality issues are “affecting us very badly”, he said.
“But the government, from its side, is sending people to towns like ours that have problems with wastewater plants and drinking water plants. There are rapid response teams that have come to help.”
The government, too, has promised to tackle sewage pollution in Emfuleni
“It has taken us a long time to get to this point as we know that that the problem of spillage has been going on for an extended period of time,” said Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu, when she visited the Vaal River intervention project this week.
“This problem not only affected the local community, but it also affected local tourism badly. However, I would like to assure the community and the rest of South Africa that the government is committed to do things differently and to ensure that people live in dignity.
“We were saddened about the problem in Emfuleni and we are working to ensure that it won’t happen again”, she said.
The East Rand Water Care Company (Erwat) was appointed to take over and “build on the progress” that began with the deployment of the SANDF. Erwat said “a lot of waste water networks in Vereeniging have been cleared, which had resulted in the increase of water flow to wastewater treatment plants”.
But Maureen Stewart of NGO Save the Vaal Environment said questions remained.
“The Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant has not been operational since the end of May 2018, spewing some 130million litres of raw sewage into the Rietspruit daily. When will this problem be resolved?
“The Rietspruit river, which runs into the Vaal River at Loch Vaal, is virtually a sewage sludge pond at its mouth with E coli counts running into the millions at times. The department has responsibility for water quality in rivers in terms of the National Water Act. What plans does it have to rehabilitate the Rietspruit?”
The Emfuleni Council is under administration.
“How will it be able to maintain the wastewater system to specification when Erwat has finished their work?”