Fight to save ‘river of faeces’

Published Aug 1, 2018


On a hot summer’s day in January, Willem Snyman navigated a tangle of overgrown bush, gently waving away the tiny insects trying to settle on his long, grey beard.

The old farm in Erasmia, Centurion, where he was walking held a precious secret: a natural spring. Encased by a crumbling wall, this strong riverside fountain once supplied Erasmia with water, Snyman explained, as he scaled a tree trunk to reach it.

Lifting his jeans to his knees, he sunk his feet into the crystal clear pool. 

“It’s perfect,” he grinned, scooping some water into his hands, to drink. “It tastes like good water should.”

But not for long. Almost immediately the stream flowed into the murky, grey waters of the polluted Hennops River, where wastewater treatment plants like Sunderland Ridge discharge effluent.

“It only takes two minutes and its polluted,” remarked Snyman, nodding in the direction of the Tshwane-run treatment plant located less than a kilometre away.

"In the past decade, this once-pristine river has become a dumping ground of raw and partially treated sewage. It’s shameful.”

Snyman, an artist, lives next to the river and runs the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops (Fresh), a non-profit that works to clean pollution in the Hennops and maintain its ever-threatened ecosystem. 

But his seems like an almost impossible task. Persistent degradation has transformed parts of the Hennops, dubbed the “river of faeces”, into an often blackened, foam-filled, plastic-clogged mess.

With its source in Kempton Park, the Hennops flows through Tembisa, Ivory Park, Olifantsfontein, and central Centurion, curling its way through the Hennops River valley, and the rugged Schurverberg foothills, where the perennial river has carved an ancient, spectacular course. Together with the polluted Jukskei, it joins the Crocodile River, flowing into the polluted Hartbeespoort Dam.

Failing wastewater treatment works in the river’s heavily-urbanised catchment area have contributed to turning the river into a “lifeless wasteland”, says Snyman, shouting over the roar of sewage from Sunderland Ridge gushing into the Hennops. 

"Often, what is discharged is worse than what has come in to these plants. Residents are paying to have their sewage treated, but it's just dumped raw or untreated into the river. The river has just become a dumping ground."

There have been long periods of almost a year when this plant was "mostly not functioning, with sewage rotting further while flowing through the plant and being discharged untreated".

It’s a decade-old problem.“Ageing infrastructure and numerous debilitating cable thefts have reduced capacity drastically.” The cable thieves struck again the previous night. 

Poorly-treated effluent builds up on the riverbed in winter and is washed down with the first rain, turning the Hennops black.“Other times it has turned black without rain and it appears to be dumped in great volumes with the most likely culprits sewage works as they are the only ones with such high volumes and the accompanying smell.

“There’s a huge old sludge dump at Sunderland and aerial photos show it leaking into the river,” he says, adding there is greater political will now in Tshwane to address the spillages.

Further upstream, in Ekurhuleni, sewage spillages by the East Rand Water Care Company (ERWAT) from its Olifantsfontein plant into the Kaalspruit, part of the headwaters of the Hennops, have also hurt the river.

Pollution from failing wastewater treatment works in Gauteng, the province’s surging population, misuse of sewage networks, vandalism and the rapid increase of informal settlements have degraded the Hennops River, particularly in the past decade.

Pictures: Fresh and Hennops Blue Horizon

“The kilometre-long, sludge-filled trench behind the works and eyewitness reports of it leaking into the stream, have been denied by ERWAT. “Their expert said it’s high levels of salts that are dumped in the river by industry, depriving the water of oxygen and turning it black. There are probably different sources but sewage is definitely a major source, considering the rotten smell.”

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has issued directives to Sunderland Ridge and Olifantsfontein, the latter for pollution emanating from its works due to non-compliance to operating standards and malfunctioning of equipment. 

In a recent letter to Snyman from the North West DWS, senior officials acknowledged the major problems in the Kaalspruit and Hennops as the “sewage leakages” from the neighbouring municipalities of Ekurhuleni, Joburg and Tshwane.

This is caused by several “dynamic” factors including ageing infrastructure in reticulation and pump stations; a growing population; vandalism; misuse of the sewage network and the rapid increase of informal settlements, “many of which are within the 1:100 year flood line”. 

The DWS is “continuously engaging” the three municipalities. “They have submitted action plans with time frames to address the sewage pollution affecting the Hennops. But there are challenges.”

Last year, a report commissioned by the Gauteng Department of Economic, Agriculture and Rural Development revealed that while Gauteng is the best-performing province for water purification for potable water provision, “dysfunctional and malfunctioning wastewater treatment infrastructure, as well as the diffuse release of effluent from unserviced settlements”, requires serious, urgent intervention to reverse the degradation of rivers, wetlands and dams.

The researchers found an “overwhelming negative trend” in the condition of water resources in Gauteng from the poor and irresponsible management of human activities, threatening socio-ecological systems, “which are all inextricably linked to water”.

The report warned of a worrying rise in faecal coliform concentrations in provincial waterways since 2011, with most samples falling within the “not acceptable” to “poor” category.

“I’ve written so many letters to the DWS about all this sewage pollution over the years, but have not received any response. The government is doing nothing,” remarks exotic bird breeder Mohamed Dockrat, staring out over his polluted dam in Erasmia. “It will take a miracle to fix this mess. 

Exoctic bird farmer Mohamed Dockrat. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA).

Numerous sewage spills have wiped out his fish and lowered the breeding potential of his birds. “When we moved here there were so many crabs. Now if you see one, you're so fascinated ... I won’t dare give my birds this toxic water now. When I have, they died in two days. They only drink borehole water.”

The slimy stream that runs outside his kitchen is coated in black sludge. “The whole Hennops is basically that stuff. You can’t even sit outside in summer. It reeks ... You won’t sort out the pollution in Hartbeespoort Dam until you sort out the rivers feeding it.”

Katherine Fillimore, who lives in the upmarket Southdowns Estate in Irene, believes the river can be restored.“Daily, we smell and see the foaming raw sewage in the Hennops passing through our estate and we witness the endless pilies of waste plastic being trapped in the plantation along the river’s edge. Our perception of the river needs to be changed - the river is not a sewer or a gutter.”

Fillimore, who conducts yoga lessons on the river bank, is part of the non-profit Hennops Blue Horizon, which creates awareness, raises funds and works with groups like Fresh on projects to heal the river.

The environmental problems facing the Hennops are massive and complex, says the organisation, describing how what happens at the headwaters of the Hennops River affects all the water resources downstream. 

“The Sesmylspruit and Kaalspruit/Olifantspruit join together to form the headwaters of the Hennops. While the Sesmylspruit, which comes from Rietvlei Dam, is relatively clean, extensive urbanisation, both in terms of formal, informal and industrial townships polluting and increasing the flow in the river, has polluted the Kaalspruit."

“E.coli counts in regions (of the river system) are in the hundreds of thousands, and in some places, in the millions. An acceptable level is less than 200 mg/*.”

High levels of conductivity in the river from industrial pollution, litter, erosion and “sporadic incidents of extremely high pollution which have not been accounted for” further degrade the Hennops.

Last week, Ekurhuleni councillor Derek Thomson, the DA’s shadow MMC for Water and Sanitation and a member of the Hennops River Forum, flew over the river as it ran its dirty course. 

“It was just a sickly, murky grey everywhere. The biggest challenge is pollution in Joburg and Tembisa, which has a knock-on effect ... Come the summer rains, you get this black sludge from all the poo on the riverbed. The layer of poo in Centurion Lake is roughly 1.8m deep.”

Sputnik Ratau, spokesperson for the national DWS, points out that the 10 wastewater treatment works discharging into the catchment all have water use authorisations. “It should, however, be noted that not all wastewater treatment works fully comply with their authorisation conditions as observed in Olifantsfontein, Johannesburg’s Northern Works and Sunderland Ridge wastewater treatment works.”

Pollution from surrounding settlements has a “wider water pollution implication than the wastewater works itself” and is rooted in the complex socio-economic and socio-political conditions in townships. Failing sanitation and waste removal systems create poor living conditions for its residents living next to streams.

“This may contribute to serious water pollution problems to downstream users and the Hennops catchment.” Over the past three years, Joburg Water has been repairing failing water infrastructure, conducting preventative maintenance and running awareness programmes in Ivory Park to inform residents of the correct use of sewer infrastructure.

Standing on her withered mealie farm on the rag-strewn banks of the Hennops in Ivory Park, Railina Cossa tells how death lurks in the river.“We’ve found dead babies, dogs, in the river,” she wrinkles her nose. “The river stinks. If your skin gets in contact with the water, it itches. When the kids get sick, I’m not sure if it’s from this dirty water.”

Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, points out that solutions such as awareness campaigns, financial incentives for community recycling and building partnerships are important. “But dysfunctional wastewater works need to be repaired.

Railina Cossa. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/African News Agency (ANA).

“The 2014 Green Drop report indicated that 212 waste water treatment plants in SA fall within a critical risk categorisation. These plants pose serious risks of completely untreated sewage entering rivers, streams and dams and health risks.”

David Cochrane, of Hennops Blue Horizon, draws hope from rehabilitation of the Thames River. In 1957, it was so contaminated, it was declared biologically dead.

A boat trip on the Thames with his family in 2013 led to his work on the Hennops.

“The guide explained how badly the Thames was polluted years ago. The problems basically were the urbanisation problems we face on the Hennops. The authorities fixed these and today the Thames is clean. We saw dolphins swimming. When I spoke to my daughters (now 9 and 10) we said how great it would be if we could clean the Hennops and the otters could return. This vision remains and I hope that some day it will be a reality.”

Snyman does too. Until five years ago, he still swam in the Hennops but contracted a nasty ear infection that persists.He is encouraged by the Department of Environmental Affairs’ interest in the rehabilitation of the Hennops, a “prime fountain river”.

All five rivers that originate on the Witwatersrand - the Crocodile, Jukskei, Hennops, Klip and Apies Rivers - should be protected by their own sanctuaries and reserves to preserve water quality and restore their riparian zones.

That’s his dream for the Hennops, which he describes as “Gauteng’s wildest river”. It has its origins in the strong fountains of the Witwatersrand and is fed by numerous springs as it meanders for a 100km through the heart of South Africa's smallest province, and its economic powerhouse.

The entire Hennops River should be a nature reserve and biodiversity corridor that stretches from source to confluence and connects existing reserves and links with the new Crocodile River Reserve. “The beauty and value of a clean, clear flowing river is priceless.”

*This is part of a series on Gauteng’s dirty rivers. The plight of the Jukskei will run on August 11.

The Saturday Star 

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