Nica Richards

By Nica Richards

Journalist


SAHRC findings warn that Vaal River may be damaged ‘beyond repair’

The 19 million residents dependant on the Vaal River are now confirmed to be at serious risk due to being exposed to pollution and raw sewage.


Pollution along the Vaal River, dam and barrage systems has been deemed a human rights violation, attributed to the Emfuleni Local Municipality, an inquiry conducted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) announced on Wednesday. 

The SAHRC first noted ongoing pollution leaking into the Vaal River from Rietspruit Wastewater Treatment Works in Vanderbijlpark, Leewkuil Wastewater Treatment Works in Vereeniging, and other areas within Emfuleni in 2018. 

The 19 million residents dependent on the Vaal River are now confirmed to be at serious risk due to being exposed to pollution and raw sewage, a series of inactions which have resulted, in the SAHRC’s view, the violation of the National Water Act, the National Environment Management Act, the Municipal Finance Act, and Emfuleni Municipal water and sanitation by-laws. 

ALSO READ: Vaal River polluted ‘beyond acceptable standards’, says SAHRC

“The Vaal is now polluted beyond acceptable standards,” the report read, “because of inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants which have been unable to properly process the sewage and other wastewater produced in Emfuleni, as well as the sewage and other wastewater from the City of Johannesburg… as well as the Midvaal Municipality, that is also directed towards the wastewater sewage systems situation in the Emfuleni Municipality.” 

Pollution consequences

Not only are children swimming in raw sewage and mud, the environment has also taken a knock. 

Sewage flowing into the streets of Peacehaven. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

Yellowfish at home in the Vaal River are under threat of extinction, as well as other plants and animals. 

Livestock drinking water from the Vaal have also reportedly died.

A webinar hosted by Mail & Guardian and sponsored by the SAHRC on Wednesday, which discussed accountability, saw a number of activists and experts weigh in on the complex issues affecting the Vaal River. 

WATCH: Rivers of raw sewage flowing into the rivers which provide your drinking water

Maureen Stewart from Save the Vaal Environment (SAVE) said the current state of pollution “makes living conditions impossible”, and discourages investment in businesses to create much-needed employment. 

Tourists from Gauteng and neighbouring provinces used to enjoy frolicking in the Vaal’s waters, or river rafting in Parys, but these activities have been halted because of the poor water quality, Stewart said. 

Sewage pooling in a resident’s yard in Peacehaven. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

In the Emfuleni area, up to 42% of the local population is unemployed. 

Should the significant ecological deterioration continue at the current rate, Stewart said there would be no environment left for future generations to benefit from. 

Root of the problem

Water Research Commission (WRC) CEO Dhesigen Naidoo said the Vaal River was one of the world’s hardest working rivers, for centuries.

North-West-University’s Professor Johann Templehoff explained that some of the problems facing the Vaal could be traced to a new governmental transition, in which “significant lapses” were experienced when the National Water Act came into effect in 1998. 

Since then, a host of problems have emerged. 

In 2009, Rand Water began helping Emfuleni to resolve issues with the Sebokeng Wastewater Treatment Works. But Rand Water later withdrew due to lack of payment from the municipality. 

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was brought in to assist in 2018, but problems also could not be resolved. 

Members of the South African National Defence Force show the progress made at the Vaal River water purification plant on 21 January 2019 in Sebokeng. Picture: Gallo Images/Netwerk24/Deaan Vivier

This was when the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company took over, but could not assist, prompting the Department of Water and Sanitation  to step in. However, they have cited a lack of funding. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has also put strain on upgrading infrastructure, forcing defunct wastewater treatment plants to continue performing at sub-par capacity, and further endangering the lives of millions. 

Department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau told The Citizen that Minister Lindiwe Sisulu would be announcing successful bidders to assist the department to complete work on wastewater treatment plants over the next three years “soon”. 

“The required end state is functional wastewater treatment plants and pipelines, resulting in adequately treated effluent for discharge into the environment.”

He assured that the department had “an interest” in seeing improvements made to wastewater treatment works in the Vaal area. 

The department did not attend the webinar discussing the report, however. Ratau cited connectivity issues. 

Who is to blame? 

Emfuleni has defaulted on payments to the department to prevent further pollution, which in turn puts strain on future projects and essential maintenance. 

Stagnant, untreated sewage and waste bubbles in a temporary storage pool near a golf course in Peacehaven. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

This toxic cycle means tourism and investment continues to dwindle in the area, while issues compound. But not one party has emerged to shoulder the blame. 

The SAHRC found a lack of skills within Emfuleni to effectively manage wastewater management systems for more than a decade. 

Vandalism and theft have added more pressure to the scenario, which also causes further monetary losses to the embattled muncipality. As such, the SAHRC recommended that national government taking over the running of the municipality. 

Even artisanal miners have reportedly to broken sewage pipes to mine gold and other minerals in Gauteng.

ALSO READ: Reasonable progress made in dealing with polluted Vaal River – portfolio committee

The SAHRC also found “extensive non-compliance” to have occurred across all spheres of government. 

As such, it has been recommended that those responsible for allowing Vaal pollution to get out of hand must see the consequences of their inactions. 

For Stewart, government is simply passing the buck. She reported dealing with a number of Emfuleni managers, all of whom blame someone else. This results in staff being shifted around and problems inherited by new members, which makes the cycle to start again.

The department, in turn, also refuses to take responsibility. 

Ratau explained that the department “has no jurisdiction over officials of other departments, worse still municipalities, notwithstanding the fact that the department has been aware of the challenges”.

Sewage water spills into Dlomo Dam in Sharpeville, which locals use for drinking water, and also a feeder to the Vaal River. Picture: Nigel Sibanda

All the while, Templehoff said in a 2019 survey conducted with the help of the European Union, people from areas along the Vaal reported feeling “neglected” and “done in” by authorities and government. 

With Emfuleni and the department citing lack of funding as being the primary reason why wastewater treatment works could not be fixed immediately, the SAHRC has opted to declare the Vaal River and associated infrastructure as critical infrastructure, in a bid to have them protected and restored. 

“In the absence of a timely and effective response from the multiple spheres of government, Gauteng’s most vital water resource may very well have been irreparably damaged,” the SAHRC warned. 

The municipality and all parties involved have 60 days to respond to the SAHRC’s recommendations. 

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