The South African Human Right Commission found that Vaal River is polluted beyond acceptable standard due to untreated sewage entering it. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)
The South African Human Right Commission found that Vaal River is polluted beyond acceptable standard due to untreated sewage entering it. Picture: Karen Sandison/African News Agency (ANA)

State of Vaal River distasteful, unpalatable despite it being a crucial water source in Gauteng

By Opinion Time of article published Feb 22, 2021

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By Mthokozisi Maphumulo

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has released its final report regarding the inquiry into the sewage problem of the Vaal River.

The report, released on February 17, suggests a distasteful and unpalatable state of the Vaal River – despite this being a crucial water source in Gauteng.

According to the report, the National Treasury advised that about 19 million people depend on the Vaal for water (drinking, domestic and commercial use). This explains the gravity of having the Vaal River in good state.

The inquiry emanated from several media reports of ill-maintained and unrepaired faulty systems at certain sites within the Emfuleni Municipality.

Upon receiving these reports, the SAHRC instigated an inquiry into the alleged problems and conducted thorough enquiries, inspections of various sites and compiled its report.

The report extensively sets out the purpose of the inquiry; the findings and thereafter the commission’s recommendations.

The commission’s findings of several violations to human rights invites a discussion of what legal remedies may be available to the affected persons. It is important to note that notwithstanding the commission’s recommendations, most of which are aimed at ceasing the ongoing violations and guarding against the future recurrence; the affected communities may have well established legal remedies. Our primary purpose herein is to look at the legal recourse available.

The commission’s report explicates in detail other constitutional violations such as irregular/fruitless expenditure; corruption allegations; failure to honour and enforce contracts, etc. These are not part of the focus as the main focus is more on the vulnerable human beings whose rights have been found to have been violated and to navigate possible legal recourse, consequently.

The SAHRC found the Vaal is polluted beyond acceptable standard due to, inter alia, kilolitres of untreated sewage entering the Vaal as a result of inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants which have been unable to properly access the sewage. This has had devastating impact on natural ecosystems; the nature – with some species in risk of extinction.

The raw sewage flows on public streets, paths, and into homes. This poses serious health risk to people and violates several human rights.

In terms of the commission’s report, the pertinent human rights that have been violated include: right to dignity; freedom and security of person; a safe and healthy environment that is not harmful to health and well-being; not to be deprived of property, health care, food, water, social security, just administrative action and rights of children to be protected from maltreatment and degradation.

In addition to the constitutional rights, the report states the municipality failed to fulfil its statutory obligation to provide water supply services and sanitation services to its customers living in formal and informal settlements. This responsibility is imposed on the municipality by the Water Services Act. These are but some of the many other findings by the commission.

The commission recommended a number of corrective measures purported to prevent future recurrence of failure to deliver. The report states the pollution, and its associated risks, could result in a string of legitimate civil claims against the Department of Water and Sanitisation.

*Mthokozisi Maphumulo is an associate and litigation attorney at Adams & Adams.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Star or IOL.

The Star

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