Not pretty as a picture: Sewage spills are contaminating the environment and polluting the Vaal River because the Emfuleni council cannot afford to fix its infrastructure. The high jobless rate is behind the failure to pay for utility charges. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA
Not pretty as a picture: Sewage spills are contaminating the environment and polluting the Vaal River because the Emfuleni council cannot afford to fix its infrastructure. The high jobless rate is behind the failure to pay for utility charges. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA

The economically depressed Vaal River district is facing catastrophe as sewage from the Emfuleni water waste works continues to spill into the river, with the area’s core agricultural and tourism industries facing imminent ruin.

GDP growth in Emfuleni — the biggest local municipality on the north shore of the Vaal River — has trended downwards for at least a decade, at times falling as low as -0.5%, according to a local economic development strategy document published by the municipality.

Unemployment in the major township, Sebokeng, is at 54% and up to 35% for the whole area, a North-West University study has shown. The unemployment rate is more than five percentage points higher than the national average.

"It is a Catch-22 situation," Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce CEO Klippies Kritzinger said.

"A big problem is non-payment of utility charges, because of the high unemployment rate. It means big projects such as the R11bn River City development cannot be financed and this has a compounding effect on unemployment," he said.

Lost growth

Unless there is immediate action, what little growth there was in the area would also be lost, said Kritzinger.

The area straddling the river and formerly known as the Vaal Triangle includes the towns of Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark, Sasolburg and Parys.

Owing to the presence of steel company ArcelorMittal and chemical conglomerate Sasol, it is considered an important industrial area. It is also a big contributor to agriculture, particularly of irrigated field crops.

Irrigation farms supplying the export market were the worst affected, said Kritzinger.

With an E.coli count — by Rand Water, indicating the presence of faeces — rising in places up to 241,000 per 100ml, exporters stand to lose their phytosanitary status. A level of 130 counts per 100ml is considered safe, but anything higher than 400 poses a greater risk of gastrointestinal disorders. The E.coli count is made worse by dangerous levels of blue-green algae, algal pigments and acid mine drainage.

In February, the environmental group Save the Vaal Environment (Save) won a court order against Emfuleni. This compelled it to "take all necessary steps … to properly maintain its sewer system … to ensure that no impermissible sewage enters the Vaal River and its catchment area from the sewerage system."

This had not happened, said Save spokeswoman Maureen Stewart. Sewage had flowed downstream from Deneysville to the Bloemhof Dam. "The council is in contempt of court."

Emfuleni spokesman Makhosonke Sangweni denied the charge, saying the pollution referred to in the case had been stopped but it had started again. "The problem is the old infrastructure must be replaced. The problem is money," he said.

The Gauteng provincial department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs took over the management of Emfuleni’s finances earlier in 2018.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura announced the Vaal City commercial and leisure development in May 2015 as SA’s first "post-apartheid city".

At completion the Midvaal and Emfuleni local municipalities and the Sedibeng district municipality would likely merge to form a single municipality.

blomn@businesslive.co.za

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