SAHRC investigates the city's water crisis after reports of raw sewage flowing into rivers and dams

Tshwane communities gatvol of water crisis as department prepares court date

Paul Ash Senior reporter
Roodeplaat Dam, seen here clogged with invasive water hyacinth, has been further polluted by raw sewage flowing from Tshwane's broken water treatment infrastructure.
Roodeplaat Dam, seen here clogged with invasive water hyacinth, has been further polluted by raw sewage flowing from Tshwane's broken water treatment infrastructure.
Image: Alaister Russell

The city of Tshwane will soon find itself in court, as the water and sanitation department said it would go the legal route to force the repairs of the wastewater treatment plant at Baviaanspoort.

Department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau told TimesLIVE that the city had failed to adhere to its business plan, part of which involved fixing the Baviaanspoort plant.

“Going to court is a last resort for us,” said Ratau, but added that the department would continue to pressure the city through the courts if it emerged that problems were not being attended to. Ratau said responsibility for serving communities ultimately lay with the municipalities.

“The responsibility is in the hands of the municipality,” he said. “These are communities within the municipality.”​ 

The comments come after at times heated discussion at a SA Human Rights Commission inquiry last week.

The people of Tshwane are gatvol of their water crisis which has seen the city’s water supplies fouled by raw sewerage and left local farmers unable to sell their vegetables at produce markets because they have been irrigated with dirty water.

This blunt assessment was offered by Pretoria bar advocate Hendrik van Staden after the inquiry into the city's ailing water infrastructure.

“The community is gatvol,” said Van Staden.

The crisis was the result of years of poor maintenance and municipal incompetence which has resulted in raw sewage pouring into the Pienaars River and flowing into Roodeplaat dam, northeast of the city.

“The problem is incompetence,” said Van Staden, who was representing the Rooiwal and Pienaars River communities. “The wrong people have been appointed and there is no political will to remove the incompetence,” he said.

Officials from the DA-run city said the problem had been growing since 2004 when the ANC controlled Tshwane.

The DA had failed to make things better, however, said Van Staden. “The DA was always shouting ‘wolf’ but when they took over the problem got worse,” he said.

SAHRC Gauteng head Buang Jones said the investigation hoped to determine if sewage was affecting supplies of drinking water and whether the water and sanitation department had engaged communities after reports of continuous sewage sludge flowing from the Pienaars River into Roodeplaat Dam.

The DA was always shouting ‘wolf’ but when they took over the problem got worse.
Advocate Hendrik van Staden

The Tshwane municipality and the water and sanitation department, along with complainants, made oral submissions to the panel.

Van Staden said the ongoing water crisis was affecting the city’s poorer communities and not its wealthy residents. “People who live in certain areas don’t feel anything. They don’t see it, smell it or live next to it.”

The crisis had also affected farmers who were no longer able to sell crops at the Pretoria produce market.

“The area should be the fruit basket of Pretoria,” he said. “But the Pretoria produce market said it would not take the crops because of contamination.”

The farmers could not even water their livestock, he added. Some local farmers had switched to wheat and maize but the yields had been poor.

Despite a 2019 court order, the city had failed to repair its ailing wastewater treatment plants and pipeline network. The city’s water infrastructure includes four water treatment plants and 15 wastewater treatment plants.

Van Staden said one foreseeable option was that residents took over the management of the city’s water supply infrastructure as the communities of Viljoenskroon in Free State and Koster in North West had done.

“If they followed the same model and protected the knowledge, it would work in their best interests.”

If they followed the same model and protected the knowledge, it would work in their best interests.
Advocate Hendrik van Staden

Despite pressure over the years from the SAHRC and courts, government had done little to resolve the water crisis.

Stephens Notoane, the city’s head of utility services, admitted the city had previously been taken to court.

“We have received directives to follow and there have been court processes,” he said in a video clip posted to Twitter by the SABC.

In February 2020, the city cancelled a R291.4m contract to refurbish the Rooiwal wastewater treatment plant after the city claimed the contractors were unable to deliver on the project.

Raw sewage leaking from the ailing wastewater treatment plant had been contaminating the potable water supply to Hammanskraal for almost a decade, according to reports.

In August 2019, reacting to research carried out by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) which found traces of E. coli in samples declared the water in Hammanskraal unfit for human consumption.

Notaone said at Friday’s SAHRC briefing that the city prided itself on its skilled water and sanitation department.

The crisis was a result of lack of funds, he added.

“This is a money issue.”

While a maintenance master plan had been adopted in 2004, the maintenance backlog had been accumulating for the past 16 years.

The annual R500m budget was not enough to overcome the backlog, he added.

The upgrades would include ensuring better compliance with water use licence conditions, improved water quality to consumers and rehabilitating aquatic life in the Apies River and Leeuwkraal Dam.

Tshwane master municipal clerk for utility services Phillip Nel told the panel that it would cost about R9.2bn to fix the city’s water infrastructure.

Justice Maluleke, director of North West province’s water and sanitation department said while there had been “continuous engagements” between the department and Tshwane, the city had not complied with water control standards.

In a video clip on Twitter, Maluleke admitted the department had been “very lenient” with the city.

TimesLIVE

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