Sewage flows from the Rietspruit river into the Vaal dam. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)
Sewage flows from the Rietspruit river into the Vaal dam. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso/African News Agency (ANA)

We can’t breathe, say residents who have to contend with Vaal River’s suffocating stench

By Manyane Manyane Time of article published Mar 7, 2021

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Johannesburg - Resident Michael Gaade says for the Vaal River to be clean again, authorities should start by clearing the Rietspruit River and inoperative wastewater treatments which have over time also added to the pollution and created a health hazard for the communities in the Vaal area.

Carrying his pool net, Gaade, who lives in Rietspruit, a plot on the river banks of the Rietspruit River outside Vanderbijlpark, demonstrated how the inoperative wastewater treatments had been polluting the dam while pointing out that the sewage which has been flowing into the river had turned into sludge.

“What happens is we have the same sewage splash because it's putting the sewage right in the Rietspruit, then it’s digested on the way down,” said Gaade, adding that non-functioning wastewater treatments in Sebokeng and Rietspruit also affected Parys in the Free State.

“This is bad because there is no flow here. It’s just coming and settling. This flows straight into the Vaal River. This sewage will never go away, and it will always come. This has been bad for two years and it’s been going on for about 12 years.

“I had to keep this gate closed for my pets. The dogs will go there, swim and get sick. I just want to warn everyone who is looking after the animals to be careful about where they drink water.”

Gaade’s neighbour, Petra Stuart, is concerned that the stench coming out of the river will bring down the value of the properties in the area.

“This will affect our property values and the guest houses here because people won’t book. Even for health reasons, it becomes worse. My husband is working on the boat at the moment and his workers could not breath. It’s a stench all over. Even when you open the door sometimes you can’t breath,” she complained.

This week, following the release of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) report into the pollution of the Vaal River, Department of Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu announced that she was planning a takeover of the Emfuleni Municipality in a bid to fix the water problems there.

Sisulu, who this week also convened a series of meetings with various affected stakeholders, said her department was at an advanced stage of preparing the required Cabinet Memorandum “in order to get Cabinet approval for the takeover”.

Her spokesperson Steve Motale said: “That process is progressing well and we are happy with the progress we have made thus far.”

He added, however, that the department had been hard at work for over two years to enforce the policies and standards which had already been developed.

“Since the release of the report by the SAHRC, Minister Sisulu has been convening a series of meetings with various affected stakeholders with an intention to find lasting solutions to Vaal river and surroundings’ challenges,” he said.

In the report, the SAHRC found that the Vaal River, on which approximately 19 million people depend for drinking water and commercial use, was polluted beyond acceptable standards.

“In the absence of a timely and effective response from the multiple spheres of government, Gauteng's most vital water resource may very well have been irreparably damaged,” said the commission in the report.

“The cause (of the pollution) is the kilolitres of untreated sewage entering the Vaal because of inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants which have been unable to properly process the sewage and other wastewater produced in Emfuleni as well as the Midvaal Municipality, that is also directed towards the wastewater sewerage systems situated in the Emfuleni Municipality.

“The flow of raw sewage on public streets, paths, and into homes poses a major health hazard to people and is an obvious violation of their rights to dignity as well.”

Residents from townships such as Boipatong, at Emfuleni Local Municipality, who have had to live with raw sewage flowing on the streets and into their homes, know how it feels to contend with the indignity and the violation of their rights to live in a healthy environment.

Fanelo Motolo is one such man, having had to bear an overpowering stench for many years.

“Although this puts our health at risk, we have no choice because there’s still no help from the government,” he said.

Puleng Mareletsi sufferers from headaches and blocked sinuses because of the stench.

“The stench becomes worse when the weather's hot. There’s leakage all over this area, and the sewage runs into our homes. This place is rotten. Sometimes it flows into our houses.

“Imagine children inhale it every day while playing. This is bad. Right now, I have sinuses because of the stench. Imagine what will happen to children who play with it,” Mareletsi warned.

Wet toilet paper with human waste flows into the home and across the fast-food shop belonging to Mapaseka Mohale.

“Only a few people buy my food. There was a time I used to have many customers, now they are all gone because of this raw sewage. This is a mess. In fact, this is not a place for people to live,” she said.

Sunday Independent

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