Sewage contaminates many of SA's rivers due to crumbling sewerage infrastructure. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA
Sewage contaminates many of SA's rivers due to crumbling sewerage infrastructure. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/DUDU ZITHA

The recent media exposé on the vile state of water and sanitation in the Lekwa local municipality — Gert Sibande, Mpumalanga — is cause for great concern.

Ours is a drought-prone and water-scarce country. Broken water treatment plants that spew raw sewage into the country’s scarce fresh water sources are not only a deadly health and environmental hazard, they also threaten the survival strategies of those communities, who rely on our rivers for their livelihoods, including fresh-water fishing.

There is also a negative impact on local economic development as local businesses incur losses due to insufficient water supply. Sewage pollution also makes a mockery of our collective water conservation efforts.

In Lekwa, it became a dire necessity to pump thousands of litres of fresh water into the polluted downstream of the Vaal River to dilute the high salt levels. The municipality could have easily avoided this, had it possessed the appetite to fix its main water treatment plant in Standerton. Clearly, no such appetite exists.

This is a symptom of a dysfunctional municipality. In such cases, the problems are usually far-reaching, extending to other infrastructure including critical transport and energy infrastructure. Strangely, there never seems to be a shortage of appetite when it comes to spending millions of rand of taxpayers’ money on white elephants.

It is therefore not surprising that the municipality has nothing to show for the millions of rand it allegedly paid to contractors to fix the sewerage works. High-premium contracts, unscrupulous companies and sub-standard service delivery have become business as usual for many of our municipalities.

The insalubrious conditions in Lekwa do not only shine a spotlight on the municipality in respect of failing to provide access to clean and sufficient water, they also raise questions about the district’s jurisdictional competence, the adequacy of support from the provincial department responsible for supporting the municipality, as well as the relevant national departments.

To address these questions thoroughly, parliament must exercise its oversight mandate robustly. It must hold municipalities such as Lekwa, as well as the responsible provincial and national departments, accountable and ensure there are consequences for non-adherence to financial management laws and governance prescripts.

Not an isolated case

While the crisis in Lekwa is outrageous, it would be myopic to view it in isolation from the rest of SA’s municipal sewerage system that has largely collapsed. Out of the country’s 824 wastewater treatment plants, approximately 60 release clean water. This amounts to about 50,000l of untreated sewage released every second, which inevitably affects people throughout the country, from big cities to small towns and rural areas.

All this calls for a broader intervention into the country’s wastewater treatment infrastructure. Such intervention should prioritise maintenance as most of the problems arise due to inadequate maintenance.

As the government has revised the conditions of the Municipal Infrastructure Grant to include spending on maintenance, there is no reason why municipalities should not emulate the global best practice of spending 15% of the value of a wastewater treatment plant on its maintenance each year.

Dilapidated sewage infrastructure is a gateway to the pollution of our scarce fresh water resources — with dire social, political and economic consequences. We need to ensure that municipalities arrest this trend before it is too late. 

• Muthambi chairs the parliamentary portfolio committee on co-operative governance and traditional affairs.