/ 20 November 2007

Vaal River pollution a ‘crisis’, says scientist

Pollution of the Vaal River has reached crisis proportions, an environmental scientist said on Tuesday.

Claudia Holgate described the sewerage spills running into the Vaal River as ”a crisis” at a meeting near Sasolburg, held by Save the Vaal Environment, an environmental NGO.

The meeting at the Vaal River Barrage Reservoir was held to focus the government’s attention on ”non-performing government departments” responsible for the ”ecological disaster” at the Vaal River.

High levels of faecal pollution were found in the water as well as parasites such as Giardia, which can cause diarrhoea, and Cryptosporidium, which can cause cryptosporidiosis, a mild gastrointestinal disease.

”I say it is a crisis because anyone drinking the water, anyone watering their cabbages with the water, any livestock drinking the water could be affected … it affects all animal life from insects up to otters and birds.

”Because of the loss of biodiversity, we will have to do something now,” said Holgate.

However, senior engineer from the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry Hugh Sessens said that providing a long-term solution to the spillage problem at the Vaal would take about six years.

”It is not something one can do quickly,” he said.

Sessens said interim interventions were being put in place.

”It has been a problem for so many years. Preventative initiatives did not work … the only solution is a total overhaul of the system,” he said.

”The situation is bad … pumping stations and treatment plants are built very badly.”

Court action against the Water Affairs and Forestry Department for the sewerage spills was likely, said Bernard Fourie from Save.

He said the department had a constitutional mandate to protect the river from the sewerage spills that had been occurring over the last 10 years.

Fourie presented correspondence between his organisation and the department dating back 10 years — in which the government acknowledged the problem and yet adopted a ”band-aid” approach to solving it.

He said the department was the custodian of all water resources but it seemed ”the protector was the ultimate polluter”.

During the lively, at times heated, debate between Save members and government representatives, Rand Water engineer Keith Reynolds said his company had provided proposals to the government to fund a long-term solution to the problem — an infrastructure overhaul with a R650-million price tag.

Emfuleni municipal manager Sam Shabalala told residents that the local council had approached Rand Water about this. He said council would meet on December 4 to approve a resolution to obtain funding for it from the National Treasury.

However, responding to the criticism levelled at his municipality throughout the presentation, Shabalala said: ”The water in the Vaal River is not used by the Emfuleni municipality only … it’s a national resource.

”We are now at a stage, unlike before, where we talk about what should be done, not whether anything should be done.” — Sapa