Gauteng may have water - but it stinks
Judge gives municipality seven days to stop sewage from leaking into the Vaal River
Municipalities nationwide are under pressure to stem the torrent of sewage into South Africa’s rivers after a high court judge gave a local municipality seven days to halt further leaks into the Vaal River.
The Vaal is one of the major water sources for the Gauteng economic engine room and hundreds of irrigation farmers in the Free State, yet recent tests by Rand Water have revealed sewage levels in parts of the river that were hundreds of times higher than the required safety limits.
Water laws recommend a minimum general standard of 130 units of E.coli (sewage bacteria) – but tests done by Rand Water just last month showed E.coli levels of over 57 000 units in the river, close to a railway bridge near Vereeneging.In a Gauteng High Court decision on Tuesday this week, Judge Bashier Vally ordered the Emfuleni Local Municipality to repair and rectify problems at its wastewater treatment works within seven days.
If the municipality was not able to complete the repairs and remediation within a week, its officials are required to submit a detailed report within 14 days on the full extent of the problems and what steps will be taken to fix the situation.
The order was granted after a joint agreement in court by Emfuleni and Save the Vaal Environment (SAVE), a non-profit group set up nearly 20 years ago to protect the environmental integrity of the Vaal River.
SAVE said in court papers that such high sewage levels increased the risk of transmission of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery and there was “no good reason why the environment should be polluted for one second longer than absolutely necessary”.
It appeared that the municipality had failed to repair and maintain wastewater treatment equipment, placing the entire Emfuleni local community at “serious risk”, SAVE chairman Malcolm Plant said in a court affidavit. The area includes Vanderbijlpark, Sebokeng, Vereeniging and Sasolburg.Jeremy Ridl, a Durban-based environmental law expert who helped to draft the court application for SAVE, said: “This is part of a bigger case that we are making against the minister of Water and Sanitation, and all ministers whose failure to do their jobs properly contribute to our failed sanitation management. This is a precedent for similar action to force the authorities to act.”
“The interesting part of the court order is that we were granted a ‘structural interdict’, which forces the municipality to report back to us if they are not able to comply, and for us to ask the court to take matters further,” Ridl said.
Plant added that this was the sixth time that SAVE had sought court orders against Emfuleni, following a long-standing history of high sewage levels in the Vaal River in recent years.In the court papers, Plant said the constitution specifies that all citizens are entitled to an environment that is not harmful to their health and wellbeing.
“For more than a decade, SAVE has been interacting with Emfuleni, Rand Water and the Department of Water and Sanitation regarding the poor state of the river, in particular – serious pollution caused by broken sewerage pipes, vandalism, pump failures and generally Emfuleni’s apparent inability to provide an efficient waste-water care and management system for sewage generated within its municipal area.”
Plant said the inescapable result was that large volumes of sewage were “escaping” from Emfuleni’s sewage treatment system accidentally, or dumped unlawfully into the river.
“In addition to the compromise of the environmental rights of directly affected people, pollution of the river has far-reaching consequences for the whole region, given Gauteng’s contribution to the country’s economy and the region’s reliance on the river to make this contribution.”
Pump failures, overflowing manholes, pipe blockages, electricity outages, theft and vandalism of equipment appeared to have become the “new normal” – but this was unacceptable, said Plant.Monitoring reports by Rand Water, contained in the court papers, illustrate several examples of E.coli sewage bacteria pollution which were “hundreds of times greater than safe limits”.
In his court order, Judge Vally interdicted the municipality from allowing raw or inadequately treated sewage to flow into the Rietspruit, Klip and Vaal rivers from council treatment works.
The order also directs the municipality to complete all necessary repairs and maintenance to several pump stations and non-operational sewerage pumps in the next seven days – or alternatively submit a detailed report to SAVE on the “nature and extent of the failure of the waste water management system”.
According to the Rand Water website, even though the Vaal Dam is only the fourth largest dam in South Africa in terms of storage capacity, it is without a doubt the most important dam in view of its role as the primary supplier of water to the economic heartland of South Africa.
Downstream from the dam is the Vaal River Barrage Reservoir that was built in 1923. Rand Water says several rivers that feed into the Vaal River Barrage Reservoir flow from industrial and heavily populated areas such as Johannesburg, Vereeniging and Sasolburg.
“This reservoir was used to supply water to the Witwatersrand but no longer does so because the quality of its water is deteriorating due to pollution. This reservoir, which is managed by Rand Water, is used for many recreational activities, such as boating, skiing, fishing, swimming and many holiday resorts have grown up on its banks.”
After the river leaves the Vaal River Barrage Reservoir it meanders into the Free State, and then into the Bloemhof Dam. At Christiana there is a complex series of canals which takes water to 1,200 farms in one of the largest irrigation schemes in the southern hemisphere.
• Invited to comment on the implications of the ruling, Emfuleni municipal spokesman Makhosonke Sangweni said: “We only just heard about the ruling this morning so we are trying to collect information and will issue a statement in due course.”BACKGROUND
The Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation recognised a looming sewage and wastewater crisis in several municipalities more than a decade ago and set up a Green Drop report card scheme to assess and improve the performance of roughly 850 municipal sewage treatment works nationwide.
One of the first Green Drop reports, published in 2009, found that municipal waste water treatment was generally “far from acceptable”. Only 7% managed to get Green Drop certification, while more than half of the plants scored between 0% and 49% , suggesting that “drastic improvements” were required.
It found that despite some pockets of excellence, many plants are not operated correctly and the quality of effluent treated and emptied into rivers does not comply with national standards.
“Most facilities in the rural areas and smaller towns are not adequately equipped with staff or the appropriate skills and also battled to attract properly-skilled technical staff.”
One of the latest available Green Drop reports (published in 2016 after lengthy delays) found that while there had been some improvements, 84% of plants nationwide were still classified in the medium, high or critical risk category.