Report reveals rotten state of SA's sewage plants

The shocking state of South Africa’s sewage plants, which treat billions of litres of waste water each day, was revealed in the long-awaited Green Drop Report officially released by Water Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica on Thursday.

Among its findings are that “the bulk of the plants can be described as poor to non-functional”.

According to the document—which includes a “first-order assessment” of municipal treatment plants, conducted between August 2008 and July last year—close to half (403) of the 852 waste water treatment plants around the country were not in a state to be assessed.

Of the 449 that were, only 203 scored “better than 50% in measurement against the stringent criteria set”.

A scant 32 treatment plants—about 3,8% of the total—received so-called Green Drop status, which is broadly equivalent to them complying with international standards.

The majority of the plants that won the award are located in or around Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

The report’s findings imply that hundreds of millions of litres of untreated or inadequately-treated sewage is being illegally discharged into rivers and streams each day, mainly by small town municipalities.

Referring to the 403 treatment works that were not assessed, the document noted that municipal officials at these plants were, among other things, “not sufficiently confident in their levels of competence to be subjected to assessments”.

Another reason given was municipalities “not adhering” to a call to be assessed.

“It was found that most facilities in the rural areas and smaller towns are not adequately equipped with staff of appropriate skills and this constrained the performance of these systems,” the report stated.

Free State, Limpopo fingered
The report examined municipalities by province. The lowest scoring of these, with a provincial average of 15%, was the Free State, where only eight out of 20 water service authorities took part in the Green Drop assessment.

Another province where “most of the municipalities had low scores” was Limpopo. The province scored an average 18%, with only four of its 13 water service authorities assessed.

A water service authority (WSA) controls a region in a province, and may serve more than one municipality within that area.

In a section titled “Key Findings and Way Forward”, the report said skills shortages existed at all levels of waste-water treatment management.

“The result is that many plants are not operated correctly, and the resultant effluent water quality is no longer compliant.

“A poor understanding of the technicalities of waste-water treatment and ... treatment plants is prevalent under senior town management and administration; the needs of the plant and its operators are therefore not prioritised.”

There was also a poor understanding of funding needs.

Maintenance a ‘luxury’
“As a result, maintenance of infrastructure may have become a luxury rather than a necessity. The state of the bulk of the plants can be described as poor to non-functional. In many cases, extensive refurbishment and expansion of the current plants are required ... [and] the processes employed at plants are no longer sufficient to deliver the required final water quality,” said the report.

At a parliamentary media briefing earlier this month, Sonjica said her department would ideally need “more than R100-billion” over the next three years to tackle challenges such as upgrading and refurbishing sanitation infrastructure, and hiring skilled staff.

A month earlier, she denied there was a sanitation crisis, but said her department was worried about municipal sewage plants.

“I wouldn’t say there was a crisis in a way that would make people run, really, but there are serious concerns, we have very serious concerns ... as the regulator,” she said at the time.

The report said South Africa’s 852 sewage plants and pipelines treat and transport about 7,589-billion litres of waste water a day. The estimated capital replacement value of the infrastructure was about R23-billion, and estimated operational expenditure was about R3,5-billion a year.

On municipalities that do not comply with the required sewage treatment standards, it threatened to place low-scoring authorities under “close surveillance”. - Sapa

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