The Vaal stinks. So does Rand Water
Toxic sludge is killing fish and threatening farms, but Rand Water still thinks CEO deserves 'positive mention and appreciation'
Never in her life has Maureen Stewart seen devastation on the Vaal River on the scale of the past two weeks.
An unprecedented ecological disaster is unfolding in large stretches of the river, which is the main source of water for some of SA’s best farmland.
Raw sewage has been flowing into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni Municipality on the northern bank of the river, killing fish in their thousands.
The disaster is unfolding in the midst of the ambitious R1bn Sedibeng Regional Sewer Scheme, announced in 2015 by then Water and Sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane.
According to its implementation protocol, one of its objectives was to address the “spillage of raw sewage into the Vaal River” and “deliver effective solutions to prevent pollution of strategic national water resources”.Its failure has not stopped Rand Water, the implementing agent, from paying chief executive Percy Sechemane incentive bonuses for the past three years of up to 71%, in contravention of a Department of Water and Sanitation remuneration policy which limits bonuses to 45%.
Motivating Sechemane’s latest bonus last October (it amounted to 48.7%, or R1.63m), Rand Water chairperson Thsidi Hashatse cited executives’ “extensive effort and contributions” to the Sedibeng Regional Sewer Scheme, which she said “deserved positive mention and appreciation”.
The Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse questioned this motivation in a letter last week to Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti, in which it asked for Rand Water executive bonuses over the past three years to be recovered.“Regarding the Sedibeng Regional Sewer Scheme, any incentive based on implementing the project is questionable as none of the work has been undertaken at a scale that deserves reward,” wrote Outa water and environment portfolio manager Yamkela Ntola.
“Had the [Sedibeng scheme] been successful, municipalities such as Emfuleni would not have streets overflowing with raw sewage.”
Ntola noted that Mokonyane wrote to Hashatse in 2016 to express concern over Sechemane’s 71% bonus, since it fell outside of her policy directive to curb excessive bonus payments. However, the minister approved the 2016/17 bonus just 18 months later.Rand Water told Times Select that “the bonuses implemented to its chief executive remain in line ... with prevailing policy”.
Stewart, vice-chairperson of activist group Save the Vaal Environment, said the R100m Sebokeng Waste Water Treatment Works alone had released 150 million litres of raw sewage into the Riestspruit River, one of the Vaal’s tributaries, every day since it stopped working in May.AfriForum’s head of environmental affairs, Marcus Pawson, said about 42 pumps across several municipalities were “partially or completely” releasing sewage into the Vaal River system.
Last week, E.coli bacteria counts in the Rietspruit River stood at 150,000 per 100ml. Samples taken on August 1 and published last week on Reservoir.co.za contained 770,000 per 100ml – nearly 2,000 times what is considered dangerous. An E.coli count of 400 leads to a high risk of gastrointestinal disorders.
Farmers and residents along the river, especially near the Free State tourist hot spot of Parys, reported a huge number of fish deaths this week.
Piet Goosen, a fishing guide whose farm is on the river bank, said thousands of fish were floating to the surface.He first noticed the problem nearly three weeks ago when tourists’ fish displayed large blemishes. Then a fin fell off a fish, and days later bodies started rising to the surface.
Goosen said locals had taken bakkie-loads of fish and were burying them in large holes and even throwing them down abandoned mine shafts.
“Two weeks ago we realised something was seriously wrong. A week ago die-off really started happening,” he said.
“From Van Der Bijl up to Bloemhof dam there are mass fish die-offs. The next step is the Orange River.”The Vaal River has been rising in popularity as a tourist hot spot and Goosen said he used to have clients from as far as Russia. But he has now cancelled all his bookings.“We are losing thousands of rands. The problem is all the farmers use the water to fill their dams and irrigate their crops. Some are completely reliant on the river. Day by day it’s getting worse,” he said.
Stewart said the once-vibrant Rietspruit was now a dead river of toxic sludge. Otters, fish and birds along its banks had died or left, and the same fate awaited the Vaal if the contamination continued, she said.
“I’ve been on the river all my life and I have never seen devastation like this. Never.”