12 Years of Vaal River pollution

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GK CRONJE

13 July 2021

The spill contravenes several statutory requirements, as stated by AfriForum in their 2014 summons. In terms of the National Water Act, 36 of 1998, as read with the National Environmental Act, 107 of 1998, the pollution of a water resource is a criminal offence.

“There is nothing more frightful than ignorance in action.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As Msukaligwa Local Municipality (MLM) fails to deliver on services across multiple levels of their management structure, the quote seems fitting. The Vaal river, a source of water for approximately 19 million South Africans, has been slated as polluted “beyond acceptable levels”, impacting on natural ecosystems and endangering the people's health. Raw sewage flowing into living areas is also a major health hazard, The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) stated. The investigation by the SAHRC followed media reports that raw sewage from various water management works from several municipalities had been leaking into the Vaal River. MLM is no exception, and is, in fact, one of the major contributors to the pollution of the Vaal River. The constant flow of raw sewage from President Fouché Avenue, the field between Oosthuise and Joubert Streets, as well as a constant flow of raw sewage from the informal settlements along the outskirts of the N17. However, the issue of MLM’s blatant disregard of environmental impact is nothing new. In 2014, Municipal Manager at the time, Mr M.W. Zungu, the Head of the Water Department, Mr B. van der Merwe, and the Director of Technical Services, Mr S. Magudulela, received a summons, whilst performing in their capacity as managers of Msukaligwa Local Municipality, in connection to the blocked sewage drains in the vicinity of the Pet Dam. The raw sewage, which, to this very day, still overflows into the creek, deposits a quantity of >1 000 000 E. Coli per 100ml of water.

This contravenes several statutory requirements, as stated by AfriForum in their 2014 summons. In terms of the National Water Act, 36 of 1998, as read with the National Environmental Act, 107 of 1998, the pollution of a water resource is a criminal offence. However, no heed has been, or is paid by MLM. In 2014, stated that Rand Water has appointed contractors to see to the general maintenance of the sewer network. The purpose of the work being done at this site was to flush the bulk sewer lines so that proper water inflows at the sewer work can be measured. This is part of the Water Demand Management Project that has been launched. Birds, other wildlife and stray cattle feasts on the daily smorgasbord of excrement gushing from the sewerage lines, and cattle herders plod through the soggy marsh of sewage. The large-scale environmental contamination holds immense health risks to animals, and especially residents, facing the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several half-hearted attempts from MLM to remedy the issue has yielded no results or solution to the issue, and was done to quell the barrage of complaints from residents and businesses. The overflow from all the abovementioned sites connect directly to the Klein Drinkwater stream. This stream flows through several farms an small holdings to eventually contaminates the Vaal River with thousands of kiloliters of raw sewage per month. The overflow from the field in Camden Avenue contaminates the entire field between Mauritz Read Street and President Fouché Avenue, where cattle often graze and residents cross by foot. This sewage then flows towards the field between President Fouché Avenue and Wes Street, where it contributes to the shocking amount of sewage that overflows from the manholes and dilapidated sewerage network in this area. Instead of finding a solution to the overflow of raw sewage from the manholes in President Fouché Avenue, MLM has opted to brazenly dig trenches to redirect the sewage towards the middle of the field in an attempt to make the overflow less noticeable. However, this is of little comfort to residents in this area, as well as the local school, who have to suffer in the unsanitary environment and gagging stench, day in, and day out. This combined, constant stream of raw sewage then flows directly into the Pet Dam, which overflows into the creek between Oosthuise and Joubert Streets. There, it is joined by the overflow of the manhole in yet another field, which flows past the informal settlements and towards the Klein Drinkwater stream. Despite the raw sewage, the Klein Drinkwater stream is contaminated beyond all recognition by refuse, sanitary pads, tyres and all manner of other refuse being tossed in the stream by nearby residents. The Democratic Alliance of Mpumalanga (DA) has announced that they will write to COGTA MEC, Busisiwe Shiba, asking her to capacitate and help municipalities spend their infrastructure grant as residents are struggling with service delivery because of old and dilapidated infrastructure.

“The recent Auditor-General report has mentioned that despite there being huge infrastructure backlogs in all municipalities across Mpumalanga, municipalities are still failing to utilize grants given by national government for the purposes provided. Over the past couple of years, Msukaligwa Local Municipality has become synonymous with infrastructure issues relating to water shortages, sewage leaks that run into the rivers and onto land, and issues around power outages. Numerous infrastructure backlogs resulted in a failure of the municipality to provide water to the residents of Sheepmoore, Skaapruiz and parts of Lothair and Breyten. In addition to the above, dilapidated sewage systems have resulted in sewage spills across the municipality, and the resultant pollution of land and the water systems such as the Vaal River. It is from this perspective, the DA condemns the municipality’s underspending of the Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant by 95% as reported on by the Auditor-General in the 2019/20 audit of local municipalities,” the DA stated.