Three Rivers - a town "sinking" in its own sewage
It's mid-morning on a warm day in August and Simon Mogane sits patiently under the shade of a bluegum tree in Vosloo Park in Three Rivers, Vereeniging.
He’s waiting for any sign of movement on the fishing line he’s cast out into the murky, polluted waters of the Klip River.
A few hundred metres away, pools of stinking raw sewage fester in trenches, deliberately dug to direct it into the river, a tributary of the nearby Vaal River.
The stench is not so bad today, remarks the 63-year-old. “Some days, when it’s smelling too bad, I rather won’t fish, but today’s it’s okay,” he shrugs. “I always catch one or two carp but I clean the fish very well before we eat it. I know this water is dirty and there’s sewage in it.”
Standing alongside him, a group of fishermen tell how they won’t dare consume fish from these tainted waters. “We like to fish, that’s why we come here,” explains local resident JJ Jonk.
“The fish just don’t look healthy and you’re lucky if you get one. I don’t think there’s oxygen because of all the sewage in the water… You can’t eat this fish, you will die, man.”
The long-standing sewage crisis has hit hard in Three Rivers and Peacehaven, as it has elsewhere on the Vaal.
Here, a breakdown in the sewage pump station system has had “horrific results”, says local environmental lobby group, Save the Vaal Environment, with “raw, stinking sewage flowing into the streets and into the river”.
To illustrate this, local resident Greer De Cruz shows a foul torrent of raw sewage gushing into another Vaal tributary, the Sugarbush. Across the road, luxurious multi-million rand homes tower over the river's banks.
“This particular spill has been going on for two years,” she says, wrinkling her nose in disgust. "The sewage crisis is indiscriminate – it affects everyone, rich and poor, on the Vaal.”
The pungent odour lingers as her sister-in-law, Save member Adele Andrews, drives through Three Rivers, showing a collapsed pump station where black-grey sewage overflows from an emergency dam.
“There’s a constant flow of sewage going straight into the river,” explains Andrews. “This whole area is just full of raw sewage. This is literally a town sinking within itself.
“Businesses have left the Vaal Triangle because of the sewage crisis. There’s no rehabilitation, whether it’s from the army, the municipality, the government, there’s nothing. Zero, zero, zero. That’s why we have to go back to court. We’re sitting on a timebomb.”
Raw sewage flows from an emergency dam at a dysfunctional pump station in Vereeniging into the Vaal River. | SHEREE BEGA
In October last year, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni gave the SANDF the mandate to facilitate the urgent rehabilitation of the Vaal River system, a major water source feeding Gauteng’s economy, specifically focused on Emfuleni local municipality’s three dysfunctional wastewater treatment plants and 44 collapsed pump stations.
But the army’s efforts to repair the sewage infrastructure were ultimately “sabotaged”, believes Rosemary Anderson, a spokesperson for waste and sanitation for the business chamber in the Vaal.
“They gave them no support and didn’t give them one cent to do the job. The army had to use their own money. I don’t think they ever wanted the army to work because if it did, it would have been a huge embarrassment to the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation and to Emfuleni local municipality, in a way, because that’s their job and they couldn’t do it.
"So they literally scuppered the army’s attempts.”
The SANDF is now “predominantly serving the purpose of security”, she says. “They are securing some treatment plants and some pump stations."
Emfuleni’s “antiquated” 2600km wastewater network is in its worst-ever state. Save says that areas such as Evaton, Bophelong and Sebokeng, too, are constantly dealing with broken pipes and dysfunctional pump stations “all due to a lack of maintenance of an ageing system”.
In April, then Water Affairs Minister Gugile Nkwinti reported that R341m had been allocated for the Vaal clean-up. But there's still no sign of that promised funding.
“There’s are more questions than answers,” says Anderson. “There are so many different figures being thrown about. Now we’ve heard there’s only R141m available. So there’s no sense of urgency at all.”
Maureen Stewart of Save agrees.
“There is no clarity on the available funds. Save understands that the repairs to the current wastewater treatment system will cost R1.2 billion. This is the estimate given by the Department to the SA Human Rights Commission.
“National Treasury has made available the R1.2bn over a period of three years, starting in the 2019 financial year. For 2019, National Treasury has allocated R341m towards the repairs.
“Emfuleni Local Municipality is also allocated a municipal infrastructure grant of R169m in 2019. Treasury recommends the sanitation system be prioritised in terms of this expenditure.
“However, the R169m has not been mentioned by the department nor Emfuleni in terms of the repairs to the sanitation system. Our question is what happened to the other R100m?”
Sputnik Ratau, the department’s spokesperson, did not respond to the Saturday Star’s enquiries, but previously stated his department had committed R241m to the intervention in the Vaal.
“Cogta and the municipality have also committed funds to the intervention. To date no expenditure has yet taken place due to procurement processes that need to be followed.”
Ratau explains the R100m shortfall in the R341m figure was because this was allocated to connect 1 000 housing units to the Leeukuil wastewater treatment works several years ago.
But Anderson says “it does not seem entirely transparent to include this as part of the R341 million that was announced”.
Stewart says Save's litigation against authorities continues. "Save has joined six stakeholders in national and provincial government to a strong court order against the Emfuleni local council and its municipal manager, which was obtained in 2018. This litigation is still in progress and is awaiting response from the Ministers of Finance, Water and Sanitation and Environment as well as the Gauteng Premier and the MECs of Finance and Co-operative Development and Traditional Affairs in Gauteng."
Unquestionably, she says, the Rietspruit and Loch Vaal have borne the brunt of the Vaal’s sewage pollution. Evidence of this is contained in Rand Water’s Barrage recent weekly water quality analysis.
This showed E. coli counts, indicative of sewage in the water, totalling 198 600 per 100ml of water – 400 counts per 100ml of water is considered dangerous to human health.
“More than 130 million litres of raw sewage are spewed into the Rietspruit daily. This flows into Loch Vaal, which in turn flows into the main Vaal River, through the Vaal Barrage downstream to Parys.
“This Free State town and many others rely on the contaminated Vaal as a raw water resource for treatment. Water quality in Parys’ taps is notoriously bad due in large part to the contaminated water from Emfuleni’s wastewater system,” explains Stewart.
Out on the blackened Rietspruit, clumps of faecal matter buoyed by algae float on the surface, where the water bubbles.
“That’s the methane bubbling up,” explains Save member Michael Gaade. “It’s digesting just below us. The river is an active sewage digestion pond… It’s an open sewer.”
He says Save understands that modules 3, 4 and 5 at the Sebokeng wastewater treatment works should be progressively brought back in service by year-end, "which presumes that at least some processing of waste should be operating by October".
Rietspruit's bio-nutrient removal plant, which has been out of operation for the past two and half years, is being recommissioned and should be operating by the end of next month. "Also the new module 6 at Sebokeng, now about two years late, is supposedly almost ready for commissioning but no definite dates have been mentioned."
But he remains skeptical. "None of the deadlines that have previously been given have been achieved."
Raw sewage flows into a stormwater drain. l NOKUTHULA MBATHA African News Agency (ANA)
A campaign is needed to save SA's hardest working river.
Emfuleni’s wastewater crisis is an extension of climate change, says Johann Tempelhoff, an extraordinary professor at the South African Water History Archival Repository at North West University.
“We had a countrywide drought (2014-2019) when there was not much free-flow of water. As of late 2017, there was lots of rain water flowing in the catchment of the greater Vaal River. Emfuleni, ever since 2017 virtually had to to crisis management to prevent their systems from complete collapse,” he explains.
Tempelhoff is leading a research project funded by the EU, focused on Emfuleni’s water crisis.
“For more than a month we’ve been touring Emfuleni and neighbouring areas, Deneysville (Refengkgotso), Vanderbijlpark, Vereeniging, Sebokeng, Sharpeville and many less formal settlements in the Vaal River Barrage catchment,” he explains.
The problem of wastewater in the Vaal River Barrage goes back to the 1940s, he says, becoming most pronounced in the 1970s, when the river was described as “basically a sewer” by James Clarke, a veteran environmental journalist at The Star.
Things have not improved since then, Tempelhoff points out.
“My hunch is Emfuleni alone is not responsible for the wastewater crisis. There are also other polluters (municipalities and industries, as well as human residential areas) who are responsible for the free-flow via streams and rivers into the Vaal River Barrage catchment.
“As a local municipality with a population of about 600 000 residents in the era of post-industrialisation in southern Gauteng, ELM is not financially in a position to address all the critical water issues.
“What is perhaps needed is for us to have the national government department responsible for water to establish a catchment management agency to serve the Upper Vaal River System (from Mpumalanga where the energy is produced up to the Bloemhof Dam.”
There must be a water disaster management team at the disposal of any local authority or community facing disastrous water spills, Tempelhoff says.
“Local authorities need to work more closely with their business communities for a collaborative effort to resolve local water issues.”
The time, he says, has come for a campaign “to once and for all start cleaning up South Africa’s hardest working river. Only then will we potentially be able to partially mitigate the implications of future climate change conditions that will definitely require of us to consume less water and take care of our available water resources in a farm more mindful manner.”
He says 37% of the water Rand Water supplies to Emfuleni is lost in the municipal pipeline system. “An estimated 41% if the water is not paid for by the consumer. That is one of the reasons why Emfuleni, at the start of 2018 had a R40 million debt with Rand Water, its bulk potable water supplier.
“We need to create greater public awareness to use water in a responsible manner. It is in the interest of ourselves as well as the future generations in the not-too distant 2030s,” says Tempelhoff.