'No end in sight' to Vaal River sewage problem‚ environmental group says

Paul Ash Senior reporter
This peaceful scene of the Vaal River as it flows through Parys belies the truth that raw sewage from broken wastewater treatment plants in the Emfuleni municipality threatens jobs and poses health risks to people using the water for drinking or recreation.
This peaceful scene of the Vaal River as it flows through Parys belies the truth that raw sewage from broken wastewater treatment plants in the Emfuleni municipality threatens jobs and poses health risks to people using the water for drinking or recreation.
Image: Ossewa/Wikimedia Commons

Broken promises‚ a lack of political will and a desperate shortage of government money mean there is little hope the Vaal River's sewage pollution crisis will end any time soon.

This is the view of activist group Save the Vaal Environment (Save)‚ which has been been pressing the government for years to fix broken wastewater treatment plants in a municipality that is home to millions of people.

In mid-December‚ Save lashed out at the government and Rand Water‚ which in October was awarded the contract to fix the Emfuleni municipality’s sewerage infrastructure.

“There is no end in sight to the Vaal sewage pollution crisis‚ just a long trail of broken promises‚ lack of political will and lack of government funding for the repairs to the Emfuleni wastewater treatment system‚” said Save chair Maureen Stewart.

This was despite the municipality falling under partial administration by the province since 2019 and cabinet-approved intervention under section 63 of the Water Services Act‚ which gives control of its water infrastructure to the water and sanitation department.

In February‚ the SA Human Rights Commission said the river was “polluted beyond acceptable levels” for the estimated 19-million people who rely on it as their primary water source.

But years of mismanagement means raw sewage continues to flow unchecked into the river‚ causing a stench‚ raising E.coli levels and making the water unfit for drinking or agriculture.

Interventions by the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (Erwat) and SA National Defence Force engineers were also mired in controversy with the result that wastewater treatment works were not adequately repaired.

“The underlying problem‚ in one word‚ is funding‚” said Stewart. “This is been an ongoing problem for years and years. We hear talk about billions going to be made available but when it comes to finding R300m in one financial year‚ it doesn't actually come through.”

The biggest problem facing any contractor are the decrepit wastewater treatment works. “If you don’t get those right‚ you not going to get the river right‚ and nobody seems prepared to tackle that‚” said Stewart.

Funding for maintenance and operations should come from municipalities‚ while funding for bulk infrastructure comes from the department of water and sanitation.

Emfuleni‚ however‚ is broke‚ having been declared a dysfunctional municipality in 2020.

The Sebokeng community‚ tired of “years of broken promises”‚ has repeatedly over the past decade prevented employees and contractors from accessing the wastewater treatment works. Residents were angry that 2‚000 jobs at the works promised by former water and sanitation minister Gugile Nkwinti in 2018 did not materialise.

Rand Water noted that water treatment is not a labour-intensive business‚ which meant the works were unlikely to have been able to employ that many people.

The blockades and maintenance issues mean the plant stopped working‚ resulting in raw sewage flowing through without being treated and pouring into the Rietspruit river‚ which flows into the Vaal.

Development and construction of housing‚ hotels‚ old age homes and other accommodation has ground to a halt in the absence of a sewerage solution‚ hobbling any chance of a boom in the local tourism industry.

“The tourism potential along the Vaal River is exceptional‚” said Rosemary Anderson‚ chair of the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa).

Anderson said she hoped Rand Water would be the entity that “unlocked” billions of rands worth of developments that remain on hold. Delayed projects included an aerotropolis‚ hotels and resorts.

Meanwhile‚ heavy rains and water releases from Vaal Dam have swept much of the raw sewage downstream‚ alleviating the smell and lowering the risk of people contracting infections from polluted water. “But when the rain stops‚ we’ll be back at square one‚” said Stewart.

Rand Water spokesperson Justice Mohale said the company had the expertise and skills to operate and maintain wastewater treatment plants. It was also engaging with the community to resolve the problems.

"We are committed to sustaining a positive relationship with all the impacted communities‚" said Mohale.

So far‚ the water and sanitation department has paid Rand Water R100m and Mohale said it was on track to fix broken infrastructure .

"Rand Water will ensure that there are sufficient funds to carry out the project and that all required resources such as staff‚ vehicles‚ fuel‚ chemicals‚ equipment and tools are available‚" he said.

A team of pump station operators would also carry out daily routine and preventative maintenance‚ while water services demand management would be implemented to prevent wastage.

"This will ensure efficient attendance to water losses and leaks [and] installation of pressure-reducing valves in the identified areas‚" said Mohale.

The R100m paid to Rand Water‚ which had been awarded the work because it had the required capacity and project management expertise‚ would also not be the last payment to the company‚ said water and sanitation department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau.

"This must not be seen as the finite figure because the project will take around three years to complete‚ so a great deal of work and cost will still be experienced‚" he said.

Despite it still being "early days" since Rand Water took over the project‚ the entity was working "according to plan"‚ Ratau added.

"This implies that we have confidence in the work of the entity."


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