Environmentalists say the government’s claims over Vaal River pollution are ludicrous.

Just 30% of the troubled Emfuleni local municipality’s 46 pump stations are functional, causing major raw sewage spillages into the Vaal River system. 

The municipality, which has been placed under administration, says it was “faced with increased financial challenges which affect service delivery departments, particularly water and sanitation".

“Due to shortage of vehicles, we are unable to attend to all stations on a daily basis,” said municipality spokesperson Stanley Gaba, referring to the repossession of the municipal fleet last month.

He blamed “ageing” water and sanitation infrastructure for the frequency of sewer spillages, blockages, pump station breakdowns, water leaks and pipe bursts, which were “at a high rate”.

The municipality had now received a R20million grant from the Department of Water and Sanitation to upgrade pump stations to improve their functionality. 

“This grant will upgrade pumps, mechanical, electrical, pipe work and safety issues to prevent sewer spillages and contamination of the Vaal River, Rietspruit and other water systems and catchment areas. 

“This work will stop sewer spillages into the water systems, but it must be noted that the completion of the Sedibeng Regional Sewer Scheme is the ultimate resolution in Emfuleni and surrounding areas.”

The scheme was supposed to have started in 2007/8. “On Monday, we commenced with work of re-capacitating our pump stations, starting with pump station 12 in Redan, just outside Vereeniging. We are starting with the cleaning of the pump stations. The pump station has overflowed on a number of occasions and has resulted in spillages affecting the nearby McKay Estates and ultimately the Vaal River.

“Through the use of the grant, a new mini-substation and electricity panels have already been installed at pump station 12. 

“Currently, the pump stations team, working jointly with the service provider is hard at work cleaning the station’s pump house and removing the sludge. As soon as they are done with the cleaning, a new pump will be installed and the pump station will be commissioned as soon as possible.”

A part of the grant, he said, would be used to rehabilitate pump stations in the Sebokeng Waste Water Care Works following weeks of protests. 

“All the work to re-capacitate pump stations is aimed at ceasing the recent sewer spillages into what is known to be the third-largest river in South Africa, the Vaal River. Our sanitation technicians are working tirelessly on Pump 12, and will soon move to other problematic pump stations as the work of re-capacitating our infrastructure continues.”

The DWS said this week that it appreciated “the fact that the Vaal River and Vaal Dam, as critical parts of the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS), must be kept as free of pollution as possible; this is considering the centrality of the IVRS to the economy of Gauteng, the country, the Southern African Development Community region and ultimately the continent.

“Government convene regular meetings with the affected communities to inform them of ongoing progress. Technicians are back on site and are attending to issues notwithstanding that it will take a while to have the system working optimally. The DWS has availed an amount of R20m to Emfuleni in this regard.”

Gaba said pump station 12 would be fully functional by the end of the week. However, Chris Williams, a member of Save the Vaal Environment, which has obtained several interdicts against the municipality in recent years, remained cynical. “This pollution has been going on for 20 years, enough is enough." 

President Cyril Ramaphosa had authorised the Special Investigating Unit to investigate the DWS for alleged fraud and theft under the previous minister, Williams noted. 

"We’re not at all confident, or optimistic. It’s only now after all this pressure that the DWS is admitting raw sewage is flowing into the Vaal. Before, at meetings, they acted like it was all a fairy tale.”

The Saturday Star