Activists decry lack of action over pollution of Vaal
Activists monitoring the Vaal River say there are no signs of the implementation of a government plan to restore the collapsed wastewater management system in Emfuleni, south of Johannesburg.
Raw sewage continues to gush into the Vaal River at various points from Vereeniging to the Vaal Barrage, despite an undertaking given in mid-July by the national and provincial governments, says Save, an environmental group working to improve the state of the river.
About 150-million litres of sewage spills into the Vaal River via its Rietspruit tributary daily, Save says.
The Integrated Vaal River System, which supplies vast areas of Gauteng and the North West with drinking water, is critically important to SA, supporting about 60% of the economy.
About 45% of the country’s population live in the area supplied by water from the system via purification and distribution utility Rand Water.
More than a million people live in the most affected Vaal district municipality, Sedibeng, which includes Emfuleni, according to Stats SA’s 2011 census. Although updated official statistics are unavailable, only about 53% of the Sedibeng population have access to piped water, while the rest use groundwater, runoff and other sources, including untreated water directly from tributaries and the Vaal River.
GDP growth in Emfuleni has trended downwards for at least a decade, at times falling as low as -0.5% despite apparent population growth, according to a local economic development strategy document published by the municipality.
The water & sanitation department said last week it had made R20m available to the Emfuleni local municipality to restore its sewage works.
The department had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Emfuleni, which is the worst source of the latest sewage pollution, has blamed ageing and redundant infrastructure for the sewage spills. It says it lacks the funds to maintain the system, and the Gauteng provincial government has taken over most of the municipality’s functions.
Save obtained a court order earlier in 2018 compelling Emfuleni to produce a plan detailing its infrastructure problems and the measures it proposed to rectify the problems. But the plan is flawed, says Save. This is mainly because it contains neither completion dates for the proposed work nor details on how it will be funded.
Return to court
Save estimated this will run "into the billions".
The organisation now plans to return to court to lodge the matter again. This time it aims to include the provincial government and national government as respondents.
Other organisations seeking action to restore the Vaal River include civil rights group Outa the Vaal Action Group, Water Shortage SA and water politics expert Anthony Turton.
The SA Human Rights Commission said last week it would institute a formal inquiry into possible human rights violations over the pollution crisis.
The commission said it would invite the national department, Rand Water, Emfuleni municipality, civil society organisations, community representatives as well as chemical conglomerate Sasol. Sasol has a plant upstream from Emfuleni on the Free State bank.
The inquiry will be held on September 18 and 19.
The commission inspected affected areas on September 3 following a complaint by an undisclosed entity.
Outa first laid a complaint with the commission in March 2017 over what it alleged was the department’s failure to comply with the Water Services Act and the National Water Act.
The complaint referred to a delay in the release by the department of its Blue Drop and Green Drop water quality reports. The department’s latest report, which was for 2014, was released in 2017.
Outa alerted the commission in October to the threat that would arise should municipalities fail to treat sewage adequately. The organisation said last week that it wanted this complaint to be escalated to the public protector.