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By Cornelia Le Roux

Digital Deputy News Editor

What next?! Task team to tackle ‘sewage-loving’ water lettuce crisis in Vaal River

From herbicide to bugs and now a technical task team...The battle against the Vaal River's water lettuce rages on. Here's the latest.

Rand Water’s recent efforts to rid the Vaal River of an infestation of water lettuce and hyacinth were met with widespread public outcry about the environmental and health risks posed by the water utility’s use of the herbicide glyphosate.

The spraying of the contentious herbicide over the Vaal River has been suspended after National Water Act expert Carin Bosman slammed the “general authorisation” which Rand Water claimed it was granted by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), as “unlawful”.

ALSO READ: Polluting disaster? Rand Water embarks on herbicide spraying spree over Vaal River [Watch]

vaal river water lettuce
This photo shows the extent of the infestation of water lettuce and hyacinth in the Vaal River. Phogto via X/ @Rand_Water

Technical task team to intervene in Vaal River water lettuce crisis

In the latest development of the battle against the sewage-loving weeds, a “technical task team” has been established by Senzo Mchunu and Barbara Creecy – the respective ministers of water and sanitation, and forestry, fisheries and environment.

Rand Water CEO Sipho Mosai is at the helm of the task team which, according to DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa, has already identified “interventions with clear outcomes to manage the situation”.

Use of herbicide to be assessed

“The immediate short-term interventions include the revision of the integrated control approach, which, inter alia, will assess the use of an herbicide that is registered with the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development,” Mavasa told Jacaranda FM.

Vaal River pollution interventions: Medium and long term

“In the medium term, compliance and enforcement interventions will be intensified against the sources of pollution which are driving this situation.

“In the long term, the Vaal River catchment strategy relating to invasive alien aquatic species will be reviewed in order to implement a strategy that will holistically address the situation.”

Mavasa added that the refurbishment of the Rietspruit, Sebokeng and Leeukuil wastewater treatment works will be fast-tracked to reduce pollution that is also contributing to the high eutrophication of the Vaal River system.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “water eutrophication is mainly caused by excessive loading of nutrients into water bodies. These excessive nutrients come from both point pollution, such as waste water from industry and municipal sewage”.

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

‘Tackle sewage pollution at the source’

Water Community Action Network (WaterCAN) executive manager, Dr Ferrial Adam, told News24 that the only solution to the sewage pollution of the Vaal River is to tackle its source to mitigate the nutrient influx on which the poisonous water lettuce flourish.

“One of the critical components of this approach is tackling sewage pollution flowing into the river from Emfuleni and other surrounding municipalities. The nitrates present in sewage serve as fuel for the rapid growth of water lettuce,” he explained.

The importance of Vaal River as water source

vaal river water lettuce
Over the years, the community and businesses along the Vaal River have embarked on several initiatives to remove water lettuce from the infested river. Photo: Supplied/ Vaalweekblad

The Integrated Vaal River System serves as essential water source for 19 million people in Gauteng, the Free State, Northern Cape and North West provinces through 14 dams, which are purified by Rand Water.

The City of Johannesburg – which has been battling bouts of major water outages for the past two years – relies solely on the Vaal River for its water.

Collapse of wastewater treatment plants

The water source has been polluted by tonnes of sewage which has been allowed to flow into the river for years from the wastewater treatment plants in Emfuleni.

Non-profit organisation Save the Vaal reported in 2023 that the collapse of the treatment plants resulted in a shocking 170 million litres of raw or partially treated wastewater entering the Vaal River daily.

NOW READ: Community removes 70 tonnes of water lettuce from Vaal River