Picture: Cindy Waxa/African News Agency (ANA)

Since 1999, the water quality of the Vaal River was one of the three river management systems in South Africa with more than 20% of the length of the river system being in a critically poor state. 

Failing wastewater treatment infrastructure and intensified agricultural use were the prime culprits responsible for the deterioration of the water quality.

This is contained in “Things ‘fall apart’ - the 2017/2018 sewage spills into the Vaal River Barrage Catchment”, a presentation by Professor Johann Tempelhoff, of the SA Water History Archival Repository at the North West University, to the SA Human Rights Commission Vaal River inquiry last week.

Tempelhoff points out how only 7% of the country’s 824 wastewater treatment works, primarily operated by local authorities, work properly.
“The Vaal River is the most stressed river. The tributaries of the Suikersbosrand, Klip as well as the Taaibosspruiit, Leuuspruit, Kromelmboospruit and Ouwerfspruit in Gauteng and Free State have to absorb the waste of around 13 to 16 million people in the catchment. 

“The upper Vaal Dam - Bloemhof - has been in trouble since the 1980s. A 2007 estimate by environmental scientists found an annual flow of 910 million kilograms a year of faeces, urine and waste into the Bloemhof dam. By 2018, there were 16 million residents in the southern catchment of the Vaal River - 1.1 billion kilograms per annum.

“Leaking municipal water pipelines in SA lose 37% of their supplies before reaching the tap. The Vaal Barrage catchment is a prime recipient of this water. By 2050 South Africa will be running out of pristine water supplies. We are heading for Water 4.0.”

He points out how evidence has been presented of cryptosporidium and giardia (intestinal infection) in the Vaal River and tributaries. “The fish kills are symptomatic of the collapsing social ecological system A resilient social ecological system requires respect for nature, the self and the dignity of all people.” 

The Saturday Star