Vaal sewage spills into parts of Vereeniging as residents complain about it getting into their homes
On the map, Bernice Maritz lives in Connaught Avenue. But her family have another name for it: Shit Street.
A pool of sewage gathers like a dark stain on the street in Peacehaven or “Poohaven” as it’s been described, in Vereeniging.
The spillages are often far worse. “Usually our whole street is covered in sewage,” said Maritz. “That’s why my mom calls it 'Shit Street', because that’s all there is. The smell is terrible.”
She was home a few weeks ago when a stinking torrent of human waste flooded her yard. “It was horrible,” said Maritz, as she stepped across remnants of the spillage. “This whole area, everything, was covered in sewage. We had poo, toilet paper, condoms and nappies, all over our garden. The sewage went through the walls It’s so unhealthy to live like this, especially now with the coronavirus."
“This stopped being sewage a long time ago,” said local resident Tersia Venter, flicking through an endless stream of photos of sewage spills in the area on her phone. “If you can see human turds in the street, it’s not sewage anymore.”
The Vaal’s sewage pollution crisis has hit hard in Vereeniging. Many of the region’s 44 pump stations remain dysfunctional, with the impact “particularly noticeable in Vereeniging, with ongoing high sewage pollution levels in the Vaal River and in the streets”, according to local environmental watchdog Save the Vaal Environment (Save).
Between Vereeniging and the Vaal Barrage, the river remains polluted, contaminating water supplies in Parys and communities further downstream.
The non-profit said Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu had “taken a leadership role” in the R1.2 billion Vaal Intervention Project, which aims to repair Emfuleni municipality’s wastewater treatment system: a 2600 km pipe network, the 44 pump stations and three wastewater plants that collapsed in 2017. Still, “there’s a long way to go before we see a sewage and pollution-free Vaal River in the Emfuleni area”.
In recent months, the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (Erwat) took over from the SANDF, which could not complete its refurbishment programme as it was not properly funded.
“We did not really see any improvement in Peacehaven when the army was here and the only change we now see is when the trucks are here to pump out the sewage,” said Venter, the secretary of the Vereeniging community policing forum.
“It looks good today because these guys are here. But if they don’t come back within three days, then we sit with a major problem again. Most of the people here in Peacehaven can’t use their own freakin’ toilets and showers. The moment they do, the sewage spills over into their housesThey cannot walk from one side of their own freakin’ driveway to the other side because they’re walking through sewage. Since 2017, this has been normal to us and that’s unacceptable.”
For the last few months, sewage has no longer been permanently running in her street, said Zelda Mullen, who lives in Peacehaven. But it still pushes up from a manhole, pooling in her flowerbed. The stench is unbearable. “It's been here for years. We can't braai outside here. It stinks. God forbid, you start cooking."
She wondered if her family’s proximity to the sewage could have been to blame for her 63-year-old husband, developing life-threatening septicaemia in March.
“The doctors said it was probably airborne. He didn’t have an operation, no illness, nothing. So we don’t know if it was that (sewage), but hello, when you’ve lived with shit on your street and in your home ..."
John was in ICU for 17 days and had kidney, liver and heart failure. “The kids had to come from the UK because we thought this was it. It will take a year-and-a-half for him to fully recover. We’re so sick of living in the Vaal.”
Across the country, the municipal sewage system has crumbled. The government's Water and Sanitation Master Plan reveals 56% of the 1150 municipal wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water treatment works, are in a poor or critical condition, with 11% dysfunctional.
Between 1999 and 2011, the extent of main rivers in South Africa classified as having a poor ecological condition increased by 500%, with “some rivers pushed beyond the point of recovery”.
Environmental activist Mariette Liefferink, said the Vaal River is the country’s most hard-working. “It’s a very important river system because it supplies water to 60% of the economy and 40% of the population and it augments other river systems like the Crocodile West and Limpopo river system ... What has happened to the Vaal is like a festering sore that took years to manifest.”
Since Erwat took over, it has unblocked pipes in the sewage network, but the "benefits will only be seen when all pump and treatment plants are fully operational,” said Save.
Erwat removed "50 tons of rubble in the system, cleaned 25km of lines, fixed or unblocked 383 manholes, replaced 460 manholes" and improved the flow to the three wastewater treatment works, according to Save member Mike Gaade.
The DWS was not extending Erwat’s one-year contract at month end and was “now directly responsible for this project”.
DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said negotiations were still under way. “Whether they continue or someone else takes over is something that will be finalised in a week or two.
“What they have done is what they were expected to, which is quite a good bit. There is improvement but it’s not optimal.
"Until we’re able to resolve the whole situation, we cannot rest on our laurels,” he said.
Rietspruit suffers the consequences of ineffective wastewater treatment
The completion of expansion to the Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant is a step in the right direction, says Save. “This project started several years ago and came to a standstill in 2018 due to lack of funds. It was 96% complete at that point. Under the Minister’s watch, this project was restarted in mid-May 2020. July 2020 seems to be a realistic completion date.”
The new module will treat about one third of the Sebokeng treatment plant’s wastewater when operational. The rest of the Sebokeng plant has not been working since it was vandalised two years ago. “Work is required on that plant so that the remaining two thirds of sewage can be properly treated.”
There is no information about when effluent pumped into the Rietspruit from this plant will be fully compliant with required standards, it says.
“Work is required on the Rietspruit plant, which is currently operating at some 30% of its capacity and has been deteriorating for years. Yet, its repair programme has been left continuously on the back burner.
"This plant continues to be a major contributor to pollution of the Rietspruit and Vaal Rivers, and has caused a build-up of some 1.5m of black sludge on the riverbed where the Rietspruit enters Loch Vaal.”
It continues to pump poorly-treated sewage into the Rietspruit. Save's Mike Gaade, who lives on the banks of the polluted Rietspruit, has gone from optimistic to "mildly pessimistic" in the last six months.
“All the promises we get have not been fulfilled ... It's about four years that the sewage sludge has been coming down here to the Rietspruit but it got really bad in November 2017. It's a bit better, partly because they've unblocked some of the pipes and got the flow going ... The sewage crisis affecting everywhere from the Klip the other side of Vereeniging right through the whole town and in the streets and then it's affecting Parys."
In October, Save agreed to suspend litigation to give the intervention team an opportunity to show progress, but it warns that unless there’s a drastic improvement, it will continue court proceedings.