’Day and night we smell it’: Sewage spills make life hell for Deneysville residents
In a dark passage, beneath her proud collection of framed photos of her son’s graduation, Sarah Khaya shows the dirty-brown, peeling stains running across her wall.
This is where sewage is seeping into her RDP home. “Day and night, we smell it,” Khaya says, her face twisting in disgust. “It’s so painful. When we’re cooking and eating, that smell is always there.”
It’s a cold, grey day in Refengkgotso, neighbouring the small boating village of Deneysville on the banks of the Vaal Dam in the Free State.
Khaya, for her part, is grateful for the cool weather. “When it’s hot, it stinks even more. When it rains, our yards are flooded with sewage.”
Behind her house, sewage-filled trenches run like cracks across the sodden earth. It’s the same in the township. Streams of foul, murky water flow in between houses, flooding a local cemetery.
“It was even worse a month ago,” says Deneysville resident Darrel Robson, who is leading a tour of the sewage hotspots. “You couldn’t drive here, everything was covered in sewage.”
He stops his vehicle at one of the culprits: a broken pump station where pools of festering, raw sewage overrun the area. It’s supposed to be pumped to the nearby “dysfunctional” Metsimaholo wastewater treatment plant.
“Nothing works,” says Robson, shaking his head in frustration. Beyond the serious health risks and environmental contamination, it’s where the sewage ends up that worries Deneysville resident Kathy Manten: the Vaal Dam, which supplies most of Gauteng’s drinking water and is a catchment for rivers in Gauteng, Free State, North West and Mpumalanga.
Raw and poorly treated sewage also pours into the Taaibosspruit, which runs into the Vaal River below the Vaal Dam.
“People here have to walk through c*** to get through their front doors, children are playing in it and animals are grazing in this water,” she says. “It’s horrific. And this is Gauteng’s water, it’s our water.”
Sewage flows out “more or less constantly”, she says. “The pump houses and the wastewater treatment plant are not capable of processing the large quantities of sewage and it’s easier to divert it than to treat it … It goes into the Vaal Dam, which is what we all drink and what Joburg relies on.”
The lack of capacity of the wastewater treatment works was identified five years ago. But the problems persist, says Save the Vaal Environment (Save), a local environmental watchdog.
In 2016, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) allocated R120 million to refurbish the treatment plant as part of a R300m emergency repair programme for 26 wastewater treatment plants whose effluent is pumped into the Vaal River system.
But work stalled in September 2018. “What happened to these funds and why was the work not completed?” asks Save chairperson Malcolm Plant. “This programme was billed as phase 1 of a refurbishment programme but there was no further action.”
Manten says the contractor was reportedly not paid and left the site two years ago. “Why is that an acceptable time period to allow sewage to just keep on flowing?”
In a recent email to DWS officials, she wrote: “This vital programme has been left dysfunctional with the resultant pollution, all of which is clearly contrary to the National Water Act.
“Work at the plant has been halted for almost two years now and nothing is being done as there is apparently a court case between Metsimaholo and the contractor. We cannot be held to ransom with raw sewage running into our (Vaal) Dam on an indefinite basis while everyone waits for the court case to happen. This situation has already been occurring for far too long and drastic intervention is needed.”
In a farmer’s field overlooking the Vaal Dam, Manten shows the waterways clogged with sewage. “This is all sewage muck,” she exclaims, grimacing, as her shoes sink in the soggy ground.
“Look how wet it is – there hasn’t been rain here for months. “They (the municipality) purposefully diverted it here so they could get rid of it. It’s common municipal practice throughout South Africa to dilute your sewage. Don’t worry too much about processing it, just dilute it and problem solved.”
When it’s full the Vaal Dam has a circumference of 1300km. “What saves us on the dam from experiencing the sewage in its absolute raw format is that there’s such a vast body of water. It’s got so much water to dilute into so you are fooled into thinking it’s fine and it’s not. A few years ago Rand Water was picking up ugly bugs in the water,” Manten says.
That the Vaal Dam is hovering at 37% of its capacity is a worry. “When the levels are low like this the toxicity is raised.”
In February, Manten was alerted to a large sewage spill into the Vaal Dam. In July, DWS officials responded that they were “looking into” it. “After a few phone calls and visits from DWS and Rand Water personnel, only on August 7 did Metsimaholo suddenly find the ‘blockage’ and the sewage slowly stopped and the area began to dry out. We get all sorts of officials out, we have great big meetings – and then nothing happens.”
Save, too, is “deeply concerned” about the ongoing spillages and has instructed its lawyer to take up the matter. “As the Metsimaholo plant is unable to cope with the amount of sewage it receives, employees have taken to digging trenches to take the overflow.”
It’s common knowledge, it says that the plant is dysfunctional and has been disposing of raw sewage by diverting it through trenches dug within the bounds of the township and across farmland until it finally reaches the Vaal Dam or the Vaal River.
“This is not only a serious health risk to residents of Refengkgotso because sewage is running between houses but also an environmental criminal act,” says Plant.
The sewage pollution could represent a threat to Gauteng tap water because this water is abstracted from the Vaal Dam. “At the very least, it will increase costs of treatment, which will mean increased costs of water to consumers.”
Plant says the low level of the Vaal Dam “begs the question of how much of this water is contaminated by sewage – not only from the plant but also other dysfunctional facilities like Standerton”.
It’s not unreasonable, says Save, that residents of Gauteng and the Free State, and specifically Deneysville and Refengkgotso, “expect all authorities accountable for water and sanitation to intervene as a matter of extreme urgency” to ensure the plant is fully operational with sufficient capacity and to ensure the plant ceases its ongoing pollution of a precious water resources”.
Manten runs a family-owned boating business on the Vaal Dam and has lived in the village for most her life. She sees how, increasingly, the dam is plagued by vast swathes of toxic bluegreen algae, which feeds on sewage and other pollutants.
“When it’s hot that stuff becomes a blue, bubbling, putrid mess. You can’t swim in it, people don’t want to go boating,” she says. “The people in power don’t realise how important water is, that it won’t be here forever.”
Minutes from recent Vaal Dam Reservoir Forum meetings show how wastewater treatment works in towns including Deneysville, Vrede, Cornelia and Villiers don’t comply with required standards in terms of E coli, faecal coliforms and ammonia, among others.
“The municipal officials in charge of these plants don’t pitch at these meetings. What we want to see is people brought to book. Remember, the source of the Vaal comes all the way from Standerton and every little town along the way is pumping their c*** into the dam,” says Manten.
“We’re getting run-off from the farms, we’ve got numerous townships built on the banks of the dam and their systems don’t work so their stuff gets dumped in the dam.”
She remembers sailing on the Vaal Dam as a child, scooping water out of it to drink. “It was perfectly fine and safe. I wouldn’t be so keen to do that anymore.”
The real impact, says Save, is on the quality of water in the Vaal River and the Vaal Dam. “Levels of dangerous toxins often exceed safe limits ten-thousandfold and more, posing a serious threat to human health and environmental sustainability.”
Robson, too, is angered. “We bring this pristine water down from the mountains and contaminate it here and spend a fortune trying to purify it again. We cannot allow this pollution to continue due to negligence in the pure heart of the economy of the country.”
For Khaya, there’s a sense of weary resignation. “We have tried to complain but don’t get anywhere. We just have to go on like this.”
The government’s Water and Sanitation Master Plan reveals that 56% of the 1 150 municipal wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water treatment works are in a poor or critical condition, with 11% dysfunctional.
’Pump station hampered by cable theft, breakdowns’
The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) sent a team of specialists to assess the damage from ongoing sewage spillages in Deneysville and Refengkgotso.
“The department has noted the pollution that has been reported in Deneysville, particularly around Refengkgotso township,” said spokesperson Sputnik Ratau. “After receiving numerous complaints, DWS sent a team of specialists to assess the situation and impact to the receiving environment. Pollution to the environment was observed.
“Since it was found that the municipality was not complying with the National Water Act, Act No 36 of 1998, in terms of Section 19, which states that failure to take reasonable measures to prevent any such pollution from occurring, continuing and recurring, a notice of intention to issue a directive was issued to Metsimaholo local municipality.”
It instructed the municipality to immediately stop the pollution and submit a rehabilitation plan for affected areas. “The municipality responded by indicating that pollution in some areas has been stopped.
However, pollution occurs again if there are power cuts affecting pump stations. They also indicated that pollution occurs due to sand and other foreign objects that block sewage lines and pump stations.”
DWS undertook another site inspection on August 21 to verify their submission. “During the investigation it was found that indeed in some areas pollution has stopped. Previously, pollution was observed near the cemetery, south-east of Refengkgotso township. Pollution there has stopped and the pump station was operational.
However, pollution on the pump station west of Refengkgotso was continuing. DWS will therefore issue a directive to the municipality to rectify that outstanding pollution area and pump station.”
It “should be categorically stated” that diversion of pollution to the Vaal River or the open environment is a contravention of the National Water Act. “DWS takes pollution matters seriously and any transgressors of the National Water Act and regulations are acted upon decisively.”
Normally, the DWS first issues a notice and a respondent is given 7 to 14 days to respond and rectify non compliance. “If there is no response, or if the department is not satisfied with the response, a directive is issued.
If the directive is not attended to in time then a criminal case gets opened against the municipality. In normal situations the process takes about three months. It should, however, be noted that this is a consultative process, and most of the time it takes longer.
“Rectifying pollution involves many stakeholders, like Eskom for power supplies, Cogta for assisting municipalities to comply with the directive and other financial support for refurbishments and upgrading of infrastructure. To have a successful criminal case, the department therefore needs to prove that it has consulted extensively and the process was not successful … It therefore means that the department cannot pursue a criminal case against another governmental department or municipality before satisfying intergovernmental processes. DWS will, however, expedite the processes to avoid more pollution to the Vaal River.”
The DWS allocated funds through the Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant to upgrade the Deneysville/ Refengkgotso wastewater treatment works from 2 megalitre (Mℓ) a day to a 4 Mℓ treatment works.
“The project commenced in April 2016. The overall progress on the project is 45% complete. Currently the project is on hold due to conflict between the contractor and the municipality. The contractor alleges delay of payments and site disruptions by community members.”
The DWS is engaging with the municipality and the contractor to resolve their issues. “According to the preliminary report submitted by the contractor, the project is now planned to be completed by August 2021.”
Municipality spokesperson Dr Gino Alberts says the malfunctioning of Refengkgotso pump station is due to cable theft and breakdowns, which are being attended to.