The Mario Milani Drive in Vereeniging could be a wonderfully scenic route. It runs along the banks of the Vaal River — a setting that should make for a perfect weekend escape from the hustle of Johannesburg.

But litter lines the road and, even worse, the distinct smell of faeces hangs in the air.

In its upper reaches, the 1,200km Vaal River flows into the Vaal Dam, which supplies SA’s economic hub and most populous province, Gauteng, with water.

In the so-called Vaal Triangle, which is governed by the municipality of Emfuleni, a toxic cocktail of governance failure; financial constraints arising, in part, from a culture of nonpayment; and rapid urbanisation have left the environment and this crucial water source worse for wear.

To put it more bluntly, in the words of a municipal official, the municipality is teetering on the brink of catastrophe if it does not stabilise the situation — the raw sewage flowing into the Vaal — given the health risks involved.

The situation is so dire that the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) recently held hearings into the pollution of the river. Ahead of the hearings, a site inspection, conducted following allegations of about 150Ml of raw sewage spilling into the river daily, revealed a prima facie violation of the rights of access to clean water, a clean environment and human dignity. A second round of hearings is expected in November, with the commission likely to start its report after those have been completed.

This municipality should long ago have been declared a disaster area of national concern

Nonprofit organisation Save the Vaal Environment has taken the Emfuleni municipality to court on numerous occasions. The most recent interdict, obtained in February, legally stopped the council from further polluting the river with raw sewage. However, a drive to the Rietspruit, which flows into the Vaal, shows the court order has had little effect. The water is grey, and the stench would stop even the most committed of watersports enthusiasts from venturing into what looks and smells like sewage water.

The towns of Vanderbijlpark, Vereeniging, the historically significant Sharpeville and the sprawling township of Sebokeng are served by three wastewater treatment plants. These are supposed to also treat waste from some areas south of Johannesburg, such as Lenasia and Orange Farm.

But it’s clear from the state of some of the pump stations, which are responsible for pumping the sewage to the treatment plants, that the solution is far more complex than simply bringing the treatment plants up to scratch. The pump stations are overloaded – if they’re operating at all.

Independent Online reported last month that only 30% of Emfuleni’s 46 pump stations were functional, and that the department of water & sanitation had given the municipality a R20m grant to upgrade the stations to improve their functionality. It would seem a necessary expense, given that the newest pump station was built in 1987, despite the booming population in the area.

The pump stations work in a relay system, which means the knock-on effect is huge if one of the stations in the chain is out of action. In Sebokeng, the FM visited one such out-of-order station, which municipal officials were working on at the time. Just outside, raw sewage trickled down from the houses above, before damming up a few metres ahead of its destination. Some of the pipes that transfer the waste are more than half a century old; fixing them is crucial to ensuring the integrity of the system.

From the pump stations, the waste should be transported to the treatment plants. Yet the Leeuwkuil wastewater treatment plant, for example, is processing only about 15Ml of raw sewage daily, despite an operating capacity of 30Ml. The waste isn’t reaching the treatment plants and one need only look at the water and the environment to see where it’s going.

In its submission to the SAHRC, the Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) bluntly accuses Emfuleni of "washing away human rights". It concludes that the municipality "remains in a state of chaos, as its own council and management continue to ignore their responsibilities, while the provincial authorities fail to provide legislated oversight and intervention".

Outa says the behaviour of the municipal and provincial authorities demonstrates "contempt" for the residents of Emfuleni. It has excluded them from participating in finding solutions to the crisis, and left them to deal with the results of the municipality’s collapse — including the health risks associated with a collapse in the refuse removal and sewerage systems, as well as the threat that power and water cuts pose to industry, businesses and households.

The organisation believes members of the Emfuleni council and municipal management should be held personally liable for the damage caused by the collapse of services, and that criminal charges should be brought where appropriate. In addition, it’s called for a full investigation into Emfuleni’s finances.

"This municipality should long ago have been declared a disaster area of national concern," the group says.

To solve the crisis, the municipality needs money and a generous dose of political will. But historically, stringent financial management does not seem to be among its strengths: it was placed under administration by the provincial government earlier this year, and has racked up R872m in irregular expenditure over the 2017/2018 financial year while its residents have suffered.

The municipality seemed to be playing open cards regarding its irregular expenditure, having tabled a detailed report in council. But a representative of the auditor-general’s office, which is auditing the municipality, was shot last week.

Money has to be pumped into the municipality to get the pumps going, but this will prove difficult without external resources being made available — and urgently — given that Emfuleni’s average revenue collection rate hovers around 68% (it should be at about 96%).

That doesn’t mean nothing is being done. Oupa Nkoane, who took up the post of municipal manager late last year, says Emfuleni has identified crucial interventions — though these don’t include the long-term interventions required to address the ever-growing area’s needs.

What it means

Enough money must be spent on the pump stations that move sewage to treatment plants

He says he requires about R170m to fix the pump stations, while about R200m is needed to repair the rusted, old and leaking pipes that transport the waste. "This is just to curb the current crisis," says Nkoane. "We are not solving a larger infrastructure problem [with this plan]."

Once the immediate crisis is averted, the municipality has to focus on more efficient revenue collection. The aim, says Nkoane, is to raise the revenue collection rate to 95% within three years. As part of this plan, the municipality needs to ensure efficiency in its billing system. At present, it has a 90,000-meter backlog when it comes to installing utilities meters, and it plans to approach the Development Bank of SA for funding to start addressing the billing issues.

While residential metering is a long-term project, the municipality plans to start with bulk metering, so at least some money can begin flowing in.

The situation is compounded by water and electricity theft, while the municipality estimates that it loses about R300m a year as a result of a flawed valuation roll.

It is clear that Emfuleni’s governance issues need to be dealt with swiftly if it is to revive tourism and what was once a hub of industrial development — and if it is to rehabilitate the river.

Professor Johann Tempelhoff, from the SA Water History Archival Repository at North West University, says further pollution is preventable, provided the authorities take heed of the SAHRC findings and boost central government support for the waste treatment system.

It is crucial, he says, that SA deals with its sanitation and sewage problems.

For Save the Vaal Environment’s Maureen Stewart, rehabilitation is possible if the sewage crisis is dealt with – and if good rains fall, effectively flushing the river. It’s clear, however, that waiting on nature alone will not be enough to save the Vaal. It’s time for the government to do its job.