Johannesburg - Carrying an old, disused pool net, Michael Gaade walked through the deceptively scenic expanse of his garden, overlooking the Rietspruit.
At first, there was no discernible smell. But then, about 20m from the river’s edge, it hit: the foul, unbearable stench of raw sewage that has turned the Rietspruit black.
“In the mornings, it’s far worse than this,” explained Gaade, who lives on the banks of the polluted river in Vanderbijlpark, “maybe because they’re letting down more sewage at night from the treatment works. Then, this whole river is filled with bubbles and it stinks even more.”
Pushing his net into the Rietspruit, a tributary of the Vaal River, Gaade lifted up mounds of the black faecal sludge coating the riverbed. Clumps of faecal matter buoyed by algae floated on the surface, where bubbles formed like boiling water in a pot.
“That’s the methane bubbling up. It’s digesting just below us. The river is actually now an active sewage digestion pond. It’s not a river - it’s a sewage pit. When we brought the SA Human Rights Commission people here last week, they were horrified by the extent of all this pollution.”
The 72-year-old has lived on the banks of the river for years - he built his family’s home here - but more and more, he is disturbed by the worsening fate of the Rietspruit, which has been severely contaminated by raw sewage spillages for years.
“When the kids were little, they would throw the mud at each other as they played in the river. Now, no-one can go in that water, it’s so dangerous... There’s no life left. There’s no frogs, no fish, no birds.
“The Rietspruit and Sebokeng wastewater treatment works dump raw sewage into the river. There’s sabotage and cable theft and all the non-connected government housing and informal settlements all the way to Orange Farm that goes into the Rietspruit. You mix that toxic cocktail together and this is what you get.”
Gaade is a member of Save the Vaal Environment (Save), a local non-profit environmental watchdog that has battled the pollution of the river from sewage since 2003 “despite Save’s dialogue with the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Emfuleni local municipality”, which has been placed under administration.
Last week, Gaade and several Save members were part of the three-day inquiry held by the SA Human Rights Commission to probe whether the state of the Vaal river violates or threatens human rights, including environmental rights, in terms of Section 24 of the Constitution, from raw and poorly treated sewage blighting the region.
According to Save, massive sewage spills had killed thousands of fish in June and July, but there had been tons of fish killed over the years. Save holds six high court interdicts since 2008, ordering the municipality to stop the sewage pollution of the river.
“Overflowing manholes and broken pipes cause sewage health hazards in all Emfuleni local municipality communities.” At the inquiry, aquatic specialists Simone Liefferink and Russell Tate told the commission how, in their own capacity, they had undertaken an ongoing study on the Vaal because of the reported fish kills from sewage pollution.
They found the deaths could be “clearly attributed to the Rietspruit and the sewage works being the cause of the fish kill event”. The pair selected a site 9km from the Vaal Barrage, which was the suspected source of pollution and another about 60km downstream of the Barrage.
They found the former site severely impacted, with a very large proportion of the expected taxa missing from the population.
“Taxa were not sensitive and the final class of the site - E/F - was unacceptable. No river should be in this class especially not the Vaal ... The ammonia and low dissolved oxygen clearly related to severe sewage pollution in the Rietspruit resulted in the acute pollution of the Vaal therefore impacting on the biological health of the river system, ie fish kills and low invertebrate diversity and sensitivity.”
In her presentation to the commission, Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), an active member of the Rietspruit catchment management forum, grounded it on disturbing revelations contained in the minutes of the forum meetings.
Water quality results from Rand Water for the past 10 years show ongoing pollution of the Rietspruit. “The E-coli counts from 2007 to 2018 shows increasing E-coli counts from 450 000 counts per 100ml in 2007 to 6.5 million counts per 100 ml in 2017.”
E-coli is an indicator of sewage pollution. The E-coli value in terms of water resource quality for drinking water is 0 counts per 100ml. For the FSE’s Liefferink, this suggests a failure on the part of those agencies responsible for the enforcement of the existing regulations.
“This is an unacceptable situation, bearing in mind that source water from this survey area impacts directly upon the Vaal Barrage, which is a national water resource.”
It’s overwhelmingly evident from the minutes of the Rietspruit forum meetings that while the DWS issued pre-directives and directives to the Emfuleni municipality for systemic non-compliances, it failed to “follow through with legal procedure due to technicalities”.
The FSE’s Liefferink reveals how the municpiality had to address as many as 12 000 spillages a year, with these spillages “visible when travelling from Soweto to Vanderbijlpark”.
The digesting sewage has left up to 1.6m of faecal sludge in the Rietspruit and Loch Vaal, reveals Save. Wearing his “sewage shoes”, which he uses to tour the area’s sewage hotspots, Gaade pointed out the poorly treated sewage gushing from the Rietspruit works outlet.
At the wastewater treatment works, only around 20% of design capacity is available, while at Sebokeng, only 30% of capacity is available. “I don’t know if anyone will be able to ever restore the Rietspruit,” said Gaade, shaking his head. “Where do you even start?”