R240m keeps Vaal River clean-up going, but project needs R1.1bn

A land mover clears debris from a blocked section at the Sebokeng water treatment works.
A land mover clears debris from a blocked section at the Sebokeng water treatment works.
Image: Alaister Russell

The water and sanitation department has tentatively approved R240m for the Vaal River clean-up. This after money dried up, leaving the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and others to address the crisis.

The allocation was announced at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg on Wednesday during the department and the SANDF’s testimony at the SA Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) inquiry into the Vaal River disaster.

But the Gauteng head of the water and sanitation department Sibusiso Mthembu said it would cost R1.1bn to clean up the river.

“The 1.1 [billion] will deal with the current spillages that are happening. We are looking at 39 pump stations… to get them operational, plus the three wastewater works,” Mthembu said on the sidelines of the inquiry.

The army and others are helping to clean up the Sebokeng wastewater treatment plant and sewage pollution in the Emfuleni district. Raw sewage has been flowing into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni municipality on the northern bank of the Vaal River‚ posing environmental and health risks. Communities affected by the pollution include Vereeniging‚ Sebokeng‚ Boipatong and Sharpeville.

Department of water and sanitation Gauteng head Sibusiso Mthembu.
Department of water and sanitation Gauteng head Sibusiso Mthembu.
Image: TimesLIVE/Nico Gous

Mthembu said their initial cost assessment, which was far less than R1.1bn, would only have put a plaster on the problem.

“We thought, let’s get everything to its design capacity, including how to manage it, because one of the biggest problems we have encountered was the manuals to operate the plants. Some of them were not updated. They needed to be updated…

“For the period of the intervention, we needed to make sure all is working before the facilities are handed to Emfuleni [municipality].”

The SANDF’s Colonel Andries Mahapa, who is heading the clean-up, said there was illegal spillage at Emfuleni municipality.

“It’s still there as we speak. We are determined that we need to stop this unlawful spillage.”

Mahapa said they hoped to finish the work by March next year.

Describing a sewer in Sharpeville, he said: “It was pathetic just to see that the children are playing there on a daily basis… We don’t have a choice. We need to make a difference.”

Speaking about the area in general, he said: “There are airborne diseases there, so you are going to inhale that, one way or the other. I’m grateful there are no deaths emanating from that, but should the situation not be restored, people are going to die. We need to change that, as in yesterday.”

The SANDF's Colonel Andries Mahapa.
The SANDF's Colonel Andries Mahapa.
Image: TimesLIVE/Nico Gous

Mahapa believed the pollution was affecting the local economy.

“Once the river is polluted, obviously it has an implication in terms of the economy. It drives away most people who want to come to the Vaal and enjoy themselves.”

Mahapa believed they would be finished cleaning the Sebokeng wastewater plant in the next month.

He said they wanted to minimise outsourcing and the defence department was considering buying its own equipment to help in possible future crises.

Mahapa and Mthembu believed all wastewater treatment plants should be declared national key points to protect them.

“Should anything happen at any of these plants, you are risking communities,” Mthembu said.

Mahapa said they wanted to ensure that, once they left, the Emfuleni municipality would be able to keep the water clean and infrastructure up to scratch, but in his assessment they needed 101 technical staff at the Sebokeng water plant.

“There isn’t enough personnel there. Those who are there are doing too much.”

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