... and Vaal sewerage collapse sees thousands stranded in stench ...
Streams of human waste are a constant reminder of the burgeoning crisis for the people of Boipatong
Thandi Skosana raises her hand to her face as she stands in the lee of her RDP house in Boipatong, gnarled knuckles shielding her nose and mouth from the stench of sewage and human waste whipped up around her in the afternoon breeze.
“When I wake up, it smells like this, and when I go to sleep, it is the same. This water runs passed my gate, and it never stops,” she said.
The 63-year-old finds herself in the midst of a crisis that threatens water and food security for vast swathes of Gauteng.
A general collapse in municipal sewerage in the Vaal triangle – which has seen pipelines, pump stations and water treatment plants collapsing – has led to 150 litres of sewage flowing into the Vaal River every day.
Coupled with illegal dumping from heavy industry in the region, water quality has been severely compromised.
And while SA National Defence Force soldiers have been deployed to 44 collapsed facilities across the Vaal Triangle in an effort to protect what remains of the infrastructure, and work to repair what they can, Skosana is confronted with her own personal crisis every day.
“This problem has been here for years. I don’t even use my front gate anymore because the filth runs in the streets. I had to cut a hole in my fence at the back so I can get in and out of my home.”
“People must walk on these streets and children come past here from school, and it is not right that we must live like this,” she added.
Streams of effluent snake along unnamed roads in Boipatong, bubbling up from uncovered manholes on the pavement.
Taking the path of least resistance and ultimately leeching into the Vaal River, the tributary of filth cuts through properties and roads without diversion.
For tuckshop owner Beverly Koloba, the malodour has become a fixed feature.
“Every day we feel sick, and eventually if you sit here for long enough your eyes will begin to burn. I can see the sewage running from my window, and the reality is that people are reluctant to buy food from me when this place smells like this,” she said.
“I have run this business for seven years, and we are just trying to make a living. This is how people live here,” Koloba added.
Her stand on Leshobololo Street looks on to a rivulet of waste, forming a barrier between the Tshiamong Old Age Home and running downhill past Lebohang Secondary School. Last year, Gauteng premier David Makhura said waste infrastructure within the Emfuleni Municipality, under which Boipatong falls, was a critical issue.
He told Times Select rebuilding and repairing 44 sewage pump stations leaking into the Vaal River needed to be done immediately.
“If Emfuleni’s issues are not addressed the disaster will impact beyond Gauteng,” he said.
Maureen Stewart, of civil society group SaveOurVaal, said while the efforts of the SANDF had borne fruit, they were constrained by funding.
“They are now looking at funding models, and this is hampering the progress of the work they are doing. They hope to finish their emergency repairs within a year but what is of concern is what happens after that,” she said.
“Emfuleni don’t have the capacity to provide service delivery unless the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs, as well as national treasury, come to the party. We can’t afford to wait until the army goes and only then try and plan,” Stewart said. Heavy rains had, Stewart said, masked the parlous water quality for now.
“It is masked because we have had very good rains, and that dilutes the pollution. If the army haven’t made sufficient progress and the rains stop, we will face a renewed disaster. Farmers rely on the Vaal for irrigation, and it will have a massive impact on food security,” she said.
On Wednesday, the Gauteng water and sanitation department tentatively approved R240m to go toward the cleanup operation. Department head Sibusiso Mthembu said while the windfall was available, R1.1bn was needed to make the operation a reality. Mthembu said their initial cost assessment, which was far less than R1.1bn, would only have “put a plaster on the problem”.
While the state scrambles to address the infrastructure crisis, Skosana is left with a daily reminder of its gravity.
“It has been like this longer than I can remember. Sometimes it stops, but it always comes back,” she said.
The flourishing rose bush in her garden – in full bloom – serves as cold comfort for the grandmother who lives every day encircled by human waste.