The strong smell of disinfect permeates Nnini Morosi’s neat, two-bedroom flat.
But beneath the air fresheners, sanitisers and bleach, the sickening stench of sewage still lingers.
“The kitchen is the worst,” says the mother of two, her face twisting in disgust. “It’s horrible to cook in here. Even the tap water smells like sewage.”
Morosi has lived comfortably in her block of flats in a downtrodden part of mid-town Vereeniging for the past decade.
But regular sewage spillages in the past two months have made her family’s life intolerable. Across Emfuleni, where a sewage crisis has festered for nearly 20 years, collapsing wastewater networks have caused sewage to seep through the ground into the basements of buildings, like Morosi’s.
Outside her flat, and her neighbours’, a mess of putrefying waste clogs drains. Sewage streams across the parking area.
“I can’t open my doors or my windows because of the smell. We have to buy bottled water, or boil our water. It’s tough, so tough.”
At a neighbouring flat block, Willem Potgieter* dodges the noxious pools of sewage filling the street to show how sewage is oozing into his basement. He has done what he can to try to divert it, but it seems futile.
“The sewage is coming up everywhere. It’s a disaster. That smell is in our clothes when we go to work.
“We haven’t been able to open our windows for two months.”
Local residents say Emfuleni’s crumbling, “antiquated” wastewater network - the 2600km of pipes transporting sewage to Emfuleni’s three ailing wastewater treatment works, is in its worst-ever state.
Sewage is being spilled at a “record level” all the way from Evaton down to the multimillion-rand homes on the banks of the polluted Vaal River.
“The situation is even now more dire than it has ever been in the history of Emfuleni local municipality,” remarks Rosemary Anderson, a spokesperson for waste and sanitation for the business chamber in the Vaal.
“The consequence is that there are major spillages in townships, suburbs, CBD’s, schools, clinics, council buildings, apartment blocks and roads - everywhere.
“No township, suburb or business is immune to this pollution,” she says.
The larger ramifications are that the sewage is not even getting to the waste water plants to be processed and treated because of breakdowns and blockages in the sewer network.
“This raw sewage is eventually entering the tributaries and the Vaal River.” In March, the Sedibeng District Municipality had to temporarily close its rates office because of a “necessary containment of sewer overflow”.
In October last year, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, gave the SANDF the mandate to facilitate the rehabilitation of the Vaal River system, a major water source feeding Gauteng’s economy, specifically focused on the dysfunctional wastewater treatment plants and 44 pump stations.
But the SANDF’s work, too, has largely stalled because it is yet to receive its R1billion budget.
“They are doing a fine job, even without the adequate funds and equipment they are burdened by. So far they have removed 21 tons of hardened sludge from the primary settling tanks at the Sebokeng wastewater plant, and secured pump stations that were routinely vandalised,” says Anderson.
The Department of Water and Sanitation and Treasury urgently need to allocate funds “so that the Vaal Army can continue with their mandate and Metsi a Lekoa be funded as they need to be funded to provide adequate water and sanitation to the residents of the Vaal”.
Metsi a Lekoa is the entity within Emfuleni that manages water and sanitation, but it’s “totally hamstrung by a grossly inadequate budget, vehicles, tools and human resources”.
Emfuleni should be declared a disaster area so disaster funds can be accessed quickly, she believes.
Adele Andrews, a member of environmental lobby group, Save the Vaal (Save), sits in her garden overlooking the black, sewage sludge-filled Rietspruit. The stench is unbearable.
“Here, the Rietspruit is only about 900m-deep. I’d say 800m is sewage sitting at the bottom. This last year has been horrific. Everything has literally shut down and all the sewage is coming straight down to the Vaal.
“When the Army came in, they started off doing a brilliant job but then they had no funds. What happened, Tito Mboweni?” she wonders.
Save says about 140 to 200 million litres of raw sewage flows into the Vaal River daily from Emfuleni’s sanitation system. In Loch Vaal, near the mouth of the Rietspruit, blue-green algae has now appeared.
“Although not normally toxic, blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) becomes toxic when the nutrient load exceeds certain levels in the water.
“It’s inevitable, fish are going to die and bird life will be affected,” says Andrews.
“The communities down the Vaal Barrage are affected as well, Parys and beyond. Farmers can’t irrigate. In Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, the network has collapsed. It’s a catastrophe.”
On Thursday, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which has conducted an inquiry into the contamination of the Vaal River, inspected the Sebokeng and Rietspruit sewage works.
“There is ongoing pollution and ongoing sewer spillages,” says SAHRC Buang Jones, the provincial manager.
“The changes are minimal. Progress is slow. We are disappointed that since the military intervention, there hasn’t been significant improvement.
“The military had to use its own budget to fund the remediation work at Sebokeng.
“This is despite the announcement that R1bn was set aside to address the pollution issues.”
Back in Vereeniging, Morosi watches her two young daughters and their friends ride their bikes through the puddles of raw sewage.
“My children are always sick with diarrhoea. I’m so angry - that’s why I haven’t even registered to vote.”
* Not his real name
Emfuleni failing to ‘comply’
Save the Vaal (Save) has now applied to the High Court to join the Ministers of Finance, Water and Sanitation, Environmental Affairs, the Gauteng Premier and MEC of Finance and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) to the structural interdict it obtained against the Emfuleni local municipality in February 2018.
“In this way, these entities will be made responsible with Emfuleni local municipality for the prevention of the pollution of the Vaal River, and will have to report back to the court and to Save on plans, implementation timelines, budgets and the monitoring thereof.”
Its interdict ordered the Emfuleni municipality and the municipal manager to stop pollution of the Vaal River from the council’s waste water system and to provide comprehensive plans, budgets and timelines to deal with the sewage pollution.
“Emfuleni has not complied with this order. Emfuleni’s plans did not provide the answers required in terms of the court order and pollution of the Vaal River is ongoing,” Save said.
It met with Gauteng Cogta and the special advisor to the Gauteng premier, after the premier announced partial administration of the Emfuleni local council.
“Despite commitments made at a meeting with Gauteng Cogta in July, Save has not seen the promised action from Cogta and communication from Emfuleni council and Gauteng province has dwindled to nothing.”
The army has been working at Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant, a major contributor to the pollution, since November 2018 but has been constrained by a lack of funding. It has been estimated that an amount of R1billion is required to fix the system, it says.
“Many financial numbers have been bandied about but there appears to be little transparency as to actual amounts of funding, where it is going and who is monitoring expenditure.
“Visible sewage pollution from the Emfuleni wastewater treatment system has been ongoing, contaminating the Vaal River and the streets of Emfuleni. This also impacts on communities downstream of the Vaal Barrage and represents a serious health risk.”
Save says the Rietspruit plant is not fully operational and very little capacity is being used at the Leeukuil plant as a result of a breakdown in the pump stations system. “Wastewater is simply not reaching the Leeukuil plant for treatment and going straight into the Vaal River.
“Most pump stations are not operational. The performance of those that are working is inhibited by Eskom load shedding as these pump stations have no back-up power.
“The unacceptable sewage pollution of the Vaal River and indeed the abuse of Emfuleni citizens’ human right to a clean environment, will continue unless all levels of government implement properly resourced short, medium, and long-term plans,” says Save chairperson, Malcolm Plant.
The matter is set down for May 14.
Parys’ tap water ‘not drinkable’
Every day before she goes to work, beadmaker Tshuku Molaluhi ensures she has her water containers with her.
Parys Clay Beads has a borehole and a water purifier which staff use for claymaking and drinking.
“The water we get at home, you can’t drink it,” says Molahui of Parys’s water which is sourced from the contaminated Vaal River. “It’s dirty and there are worms in it.”
Pam Trabucco, who run Parys Clay Beads, which was created to help historically disadvantaged and disabled people, opens a tap.
“The water looks clear now. But it’s not clean. Of course you can’t drink it. There’s times when the water comes out totally brown.
“The Vaal River is filthy, and so are all the streams in the town. Nobody in Parys drinks the tap water.
“Your clothing never stays white either.”
The polluted water affects the clay, changing the colours, she adds.
“When we first came here two years ago, we were warned that we must only drink bottled water. We noticed our staff always had upset stomachs. Now, they have clean water to take home to their families.”
From Emfuleni, the tainted water in the Vaal runs downstream to other provinces where communities use it for drinking and farming.
“What starts there in Emfuleni ends up here in Parys,” remarks Selma Kok of the Vaal Action Group.
“It affects the quality of the water we get if our purification works are not functioning. You can imagine if you have a market and there’s dead fish floating in the river.”