This image shows the extent of the sewage pollution in the Vaal river last week.
Kas Lubbe bent down to the gushing inlet pouring into the Vaal River and breathed in deeply.

There was a faint odour of sewage, but this was a “good day” remarked Lubbe, who manages a boating estate on the banks of the Vaal River, as he inspected the river closely. He would know - he and his family live here too.

“Today, it’s not like it usually is here,” he said of the raw or partially treated sewage that regularly flows into the river from pump station failures. “Jis, then it’s like being right inside the sewage plant.”

In recent weeks, these spills have “battered” the Vaal River between Vereeniging and the Vaal Barrage.

Pollution is at an “all time high”, said local NGO Save the Vaal Environment (Save), citing Rand Water’s analysis, which reveals E.coli bacteria counts of an astounding 435000 and 344000 over the past two weeks.

“E.coli counts of over 400 counts per 100ml is considered dangerous to human health. This not only represents serious health risks to humans and animals having contact with polluted water. It’s a threat to agriculture and a knife in the heart of tourism,” it said.

In the past few days, the Emfuleni local municipality has rectified the source of the spillages but Lubbe believes the reprieve won’t last long. “It happens all the time.”

Lucky Ledimo, the boating supervisor, agreed. He told how he and his colleagues wrote an impassioned letter to the municipality a few months ago, imploring it to maintain its sewage infrastructure and stop the spillages. It went unanswered.

“It’s not healthy working in these conditions,” he said.

Back in Lubbe’s office, he screened a seven-minute video he shot of raw sewage discharged into the Vaal from a nearby collapsed pump station in October.

“I got the same pictures last week. People don’t want to go out in their boats onto the river. You can’t even breathe.”

Save said the Rietspruit last week suffered from the “worst ever pollution” and this represented a serious environmental threat to Loch Vaal.

“At Vereeniging, the Emfuleni local municipality has had ongoing problems with malfunctioning pump stations in the Three Rivers area. The latter has been an ongoing problem since late 2016, making life unbearable for ratepayers along the Vaal.”

While the local municipality has replaced most of these pump stations “pollution continues unabated”.

Municipal spokesperson Stanley Gaba acknowledged it has “some challenges with sewer spillages into the Vaal River, and (is) very concerned with the state of the Vaal River, and the health of its residents.

“These spillages are more often caused by a combination of factors such as ageing infrastructure, coupled with human behaviour.

“The municipality has about 44 pump stations that help to deal with the sewer issues in and around Emfuleni. Of these, only nine often give problems of sewer spillages because of mechanical breakdown or faults at different times.

“The source is actually from the broken and non-functional sewer networks in the townships of Orange Farm, Evaton and Sebokeng, rather than Rietspruit.”

Foreign objects “such as animal skins, rocks and unwanted babies” are the “sources of sewer blockages which pollute the Vaal River”.

Sputnik Ratau, spokesman for the Department of Water and Sanitation, said the Sebokeng, Rietspruit and Leeuwkuil wastewater treatment works had improved their scores in the Green Drop reports, which measures the performance of the country’s water treatment plants.

“However the risk ratings done in 2014 indicated an increase from low risk category to medium risk category across all the wastewater treatment works.”

The department has conducted recent compliance inspections in the Reitspruit catchment at Arcelor Mittal, Cape Gate, Ezulwini Mine with another planned for South Deep Mine in October, issuing them with non-compliance letters.

The department, he said, created the Rietspruit catchment forum which meets quarterly to discuss issues relating to water pollution.

But Maureen Stewart, of Save, said the department, as the custodian of dams and rivers, should bear the responsibility for the “shockingly high” levels of pollution in the river.

“The department, rightly so, is very quick to take action against polluters in industry and deal with those culprits (but) doesn’t adopt the same proactive approach with local councils. This is illustrated by the limited number of directives issued to Emfuleni, which regularly pollutes the river from its wastewater system.

The local council had neither maintained nor invested in infrastructure development to provide for the increasing capacity demands from property development, said Stewart.

In 2003, a plan was announced to invest in new infrastructure for the Emfuleni sanitation system. “Nothing happened. In August 2015, the minister announced a R4 billion plan to build new infrastructure for the Sedibeng regional sewage system. This has not got beyond the drawing board. If it’s ever implemented, completion is at least 15 to 20 years away... but housing development continues in the Vaal Triangle.”

Lubbe said he and many other locals who could afford it didn’t drink municipal water.

“When you see sewage running into the river every day, you have a different picture in your head of what they’re (government) are doing.”