Vaal River Intervention Project

Management and collaboration key to success

Vaal River Intervention Project: Management and collaboration key to success

By Johann Tempelhoff
The Vaal River Intervention Project (VRIP), estimated at more than R7bn, can be completed within 24 months – providing all plans fall in place. That was the message of Vic de Wet, an engineer of the GIBB consultancy, at an August 2022 meeting of the Rietspruit sub-catchment forum in the Vaal River Barrage Management Area.
The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in 2021 appointed the Gauteng-based water utility, Rand Water, as implementing agent of the maintenance and upgrade of Emfuleni Local Municipality’s (ELM’s) wastewater infrastructure system. At the time of a countrywide drought, DWS commissioned a South African National Defence Force (SANDF) team in 2018, and Ekurhuleni Metro’s wastewater company, ERWAT, in 2020, to execute critical VRIP projects. Adjustments to Section 63 of the Water Services Act, 109 of 1997, enabled government to appoint Rand Water to take charge of all ELM’s water services. The utility is now effectively in charge of the VRIP project.


Rand Water has long-standing ties with the Vaal River Barrage – since 1998 the property of the state. In the 1920s Rand Water relied on this 64km stretch of the Vaal River, to secure water resources to the gold mines, industries and urban areas of today’s Gauteng Province.
Although Rand Water now extracts its water from the Vaal Dam (64km upstream of the Barrage), it still relies on its water purification and transfer systems in Emfuleni to transfer bulk water to users in Gauteng, and parts of Mpumalanga, North West and the Free State. The Vaal River Barrage forms part of the 1 300km long Vaal River System.
Since 2003 the system has also carried more water resources via the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) for downstream urban, industrial and farming
water consumers. In the Northern Cape the Vaal joins up with the Orange River and flows into the Atlantic Ocean on the West Coast. It is therefore important for the Upper Vaal River catchment stakeholders to minimise flows of raw sewage and industrial pollutants into the system.
Since the 1990s, ELM has been the destination of choice for an ever-growing number of rural migrants to urban areas, seeking homes and jobs. ELM’s Sebokeng urban sprawl now extends over 35km between Vanderbijlpark and the Johannesburg Metro’s southern boundary.
The maintenance and upgrade of Emfuleni’s Leeuwkuil, Rietspruit and Sebokeng wastewater treatment works, have posed many challenges. Local residents have been unable to pay for energy, water and sanitation services. It’s left ELM with outstanding accounts to the national electricity supplier, ESKOM and also Rand Water.
In 2020 Emfuleni’s wastewater infrastructure system served a population of more than 850 000 residents.


Estimates suggested 65% of local economically active residents were unemployed – almost double South Africa’s 34% unemployment rate in 2022.
Government’s grants for wastewater upgrades in Emfuleni have been insufficient since the 2000s. ELM was unable to maintain and upgrade ageing wastewater infrastructure. Systems were exacerbated by uncontrolled wastewater spills in the Vaal River Barrage during the countrywide drought of 2014-2020. Simultaneously Gauteng water restrictions had upstream municipalities spilling more raw wastewater in the Klip River, Rietspruit, Blesbokspruit and the Leeu-Taaibosspruit – all tributaries of the Vaal River Barrage.
By 2018 also Emfuleni’s Rietspruit and Sebokeng wastewater works’ released waste into the Barrage at Loch Vaal. Many of ELM’s sewage pump stations had been damaged by cable theft and vandalization. There was a public outcry about the environmental health threat. Complaints came from Sebokeng residents, and homeowners on the banks of the river. Popular local tourist destinations suffered severe losses, leading to more local unemployment. The environmental disaster that started with the drought, soon had Emfuleni’s local political leaders, business people, and irate residents engaging with government. Even South Africa’s Human Rights Commission started an investigation.
By September 2018, the new Cyril Ramaphosa presidency made a commitment to help resolve Emfuleni’s crisis. Then several organs of state collaborated on resolving an environmental health crisis. Officials and political leaders of Gauteng provincial government, DWS, and Rand Water collaborated with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA). As VRIP project leader, Rand Water, has thus far made headway.


Besides developing complex management plans for the project’s execution, emergency steps were taken to restore collapsed wastewater infrastructure systems. But, it’s not been an easy ride. On 29 March 2022 Rand Water’s CEO, Sipho Mosai, told the Parliamentary Committee on Water and Sanitation, how its team had to work with 46 different Emfuleni stakeholder groups. These included non-government organisations (NGOs), local residents, jobless groups, local companies and specialist engineering consultancies. Rand Water had to focus on resolving the Emfuleni wastewater crisis. Simultaneously stakeholders demanded: ending the pollution of the Vaal Barrage; and expectations of financial benefits in a region rife with unemployment.
Apart from complex maintenance and upgrades of a wastewater pipeline system extending over more than 2 500km, 44 pump stations need attention. Essential upgrades include the wastewater plants of Leeuwkuil, Rietspruit and Sebokeng, and new safe pump stations.


The VRIP is a priority of the DWS. Since October 2021 a new Minister, Senzo Mchunu, has been firm in government’s commitment to Emfuleni. His deputy, David Mahlobo, oversees the project.
The VRIP stakeholders are robust in their collaboration. NGOs are critical of government paying R7bn to resolve Emfuleni’s issues in two years. Save the Vaal Environment (SAVE) in 2018 started with legal steps. They insisted that broken systems, estimated at about R3bn, be restored first. After that, the ‘upgrades’ (R4bn) should follow.
CSIR researchers in the 2010s investigated complex public perceptions of water security in South Africa. They discovered that water security means different things to people. Everybody may experience compromised water security. But because of individuals’ subjective personal views on water, security issues remain complex to resolve.
Emfuleni’s VRIP stakeholders have many views. In early 2022 some halted a proposed R12 million security contract to safeguard ELM’s wastewater infrastructure. There were concerns about potential corruption. How Rand Water executes the VRIP in the new financial year, will be determined by government’s funding up to 2024 and proactive VRIP stakeholders.
* Prof Johann Tempelhoff is a water historian focusing on the cultural dynamics of water in a transdisciplinary mode. He is an extraordinary professor in the Focus Area for Social Transformation (FAST), Faculty of Humanities,at North-West University’s Vanderbijlpark Campus in South Africa.

Prof Johann Tempelhoff

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