Not pretty as a picture: Sewage spills are contaminating the environment and polluting the Vaal River. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA
Not pretty as a picture: Sewage spills are contaminating the environment and polluting the Vaal River. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is preparing to deploy technical teams to restore infrastructure at the polluted Vaal River system‚ and has warned criminals that troops will protect its equipment.

Initial assessments have been done and members of the army are expected to visit the area again on November 18.

This comes after the announcement by finance minister Tito Mboweni during his medium-term budget policy statement in October that the military had been called on to assist with engineering and other expertise to resolve the crisis in the Vaal River system. 

Raw sewage has been flowing into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni municipality on the northern bank of the river‚ posing environmental and health risks. Communities affected by the pollution include Vereeniging‚ Sebokeng‚ Boipatong and Sharpeville. 

Maj-Gen TT Xundu said a conceptual assessment was done at the Vaal River a week after the announcement by Mboweni.

“We found that the plants and substations are dysfunctional and not working. There are leakages and pipes that are burst‚ and all those things are threatening the welfare of the people‚” Xundu said.

He said following the conceptual assessment‚ a technical assessment was conducted with the municipality.   

“We are going to look at our limited engineering capabilities and see what we can do assist‚ in particular the substations and the plants.” 

Xundu said the project was expected to take a year. “We are availing ourselves to co-operate with all the stakeholders that are there‚” he said.

Xundu said the army would not allow its work to be impeded by thieves.

“All of that area will be declared a military zone‚ so that the military can move in and secure the area‚ and make sure that the equipment that is going to be used there is not going to be stolen or vandalised.”

In September‚ the South African Human Rights Commission conducted a site inspection of the Vaal River following allegations of approximately 150 megalitres of raw sewage spilling into the river daily. 

It stated: “The site inspection has revealed a prima facie violation of the rights of access to clean water‚ clean environment and human dignity.” The commission invited written submissions about the crisis to be sent to it by November 30.

Maureen Stewart‚ vice-chair of Save the Vaal Environment‚ confirmed army members had visited the Vaal. 

Their intention‚ she said‚ was “to bring in quite a number of troops to secure infrastructure‚ which is subject to theft and vandalism”.

Stewart said the army would also look at repairs and maintenance to stop sewage running into the river. She said the nongovernmental organisation welcomed the army’s involvement.  

“We are happy to work with anybody who is going to solve the problem. Our aim is to see this river cleaned up and these problems resolved.”