A land mover clears debris from a blocked section at the Sebokeng water treatment works. The defence force will withdraw its personnel on January 31 after their deployment to rehabilitate the Vaal River system. Picture: ALAlSTER RUSSELL
A land mover clears debris from a blocked section at the Sebokeng water treatment works. The defence force will withdraw its personnel on January 31 after their deployment to rehabilitate the Vaal River system. Picture: ALAlSTER RUSSELL

After a 15-month deployment, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) team sent to clean up the Vaal river system confirmed on Monday it would withdraw its services on Friday.

As a result of its work, seven pump stations are now operational and another 24 are functioning but still require attention.

The Vaal river rehabilitation project began in 2018 after raw sewage flowed into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni municipality on the northern bank of the river, posing environmental and health risks.

An assessment by the government’s intervention team in October 2018 indicated that in order for the treatment plan to be fully operational, defence force engineers were required to perform a number of tasks, including unblocking sewer lines and manholes.

SA army engineering units and regiments under the stewardship of Col Andries Mahapa contributed members and equipment to the project.

More than 500 defence force regular and reserve unit members took part in the project on a rotational basis to provide a range of engineering skills.

East Rand Water Care Company (Erwat), a government entity specialising in wastewater treatment, was appointed late in 2019 to take over and build on the work started by the SANDF.

Last week, human settlements, water and sanitation minister Lindiwe Sisulu visited Emfuleni to receive an update on the progress made by Erwat since coming on site towards the end of 2019.

Erwat MD Tumelo Gopane said a lot of wastewater networks in Vereeniging had been cleared. This had resulted in the increase of water flow to the wastewater treatment plants.

He said before the sewage systems were unblocked, only 20% of waste water could reach the treatment plants, and 80% of sewage flowed into streets, veld and the Vaal river.

In September 2019, the environmental organisation Save the Vaal said the pollution of the Vaal river from the Emfuleni local council’s wastewater treatment system had been going on for 15 years.

“It became a crisis in late 2017 when the Emfuleni waste treatment system (comprising 2,000km of pipes, 44 pump stations and three wastewater treatment plants) collapsed.

“This resulted in huge pollution of the Vaal river, which is ongoing,” said Save the Vaal spokesperson Maureen Stewart.