The state of South Africa’s sewerage systems and the extent to which they are collapsing can be gauged quickly by entering the words “sewage spill residents 2015 za” into an internet search engine and scanning the numerous entries that pop up, many of them news headlines: “Sewage problems still plague North West residents”, “Lebaleng residents live in cesspools”, “Sebokeng residents blame municipality for sewage overflow”, “Cutshwayo River flowing with sewage”, “Poo on Diepsloot residents’ doorsteps”, “Sewage flowing into Swartkops River”, “Jouberton sewage spills making children sick”.
There are scores if not hundreds of such entries, all dated within the first six months of this year, and most affecting poor, working-class people. Last year, three infants died in Bloemhof, in North West, after drinking sewage-contaminated water, a tragedy that made national headlines.
The sewerage situation has been described as a ticking health time bomb.
According to media reports, people in may areas live for months with raw sewage lapping at their doorsteps, and the rivers and streams in many regions, including those from which rural people draw water, have frighteningly high levels of E. coli. This bacterium is commonly found in the human gut, but can cause serious illness if concentrations are high in drinking water.
According to the United Nations, around the world, a child dies every 15 seconds from a waterborne disease. These deaths occur in countries where safe sanitation is either nonexistent or has collapsed. It also estimates that more than one in three people have no access to decent sanitation facilities, and one in seven has no choice but to defecate in the open.
In South Africa, about 300 000 households, mainly in rural areas, still rely on the undignified and much-hated bucket system.
According to the department of water and sanitation, 4.5 million (31%) of the 14.4 million households in the country have “unacceptable” sanitation, which it defines as either none at all, a basic pit latrine, a chemical toilet, or a bucket.
The other 69% of households have either ventilated improved pit latrines, of which there are 1.3 million, or a flush toilet connected to either a sewerage system or septic tank (8.7 million).
According to the 2012-2013 Green Drop Report, about five million cubic metres of sewage flows into 824 municipal waste water treatment plants each day. Simple arithmetic shows this is about
1.8 billion cubic metres a year — more than two-thirds of the total holding capacity of the Vaal Dam.
Disturbingly, the now three-year-old report, which assesses and scores the municipal sewerage plants, found 248 of them were in a critical state and 161 were in a poor condition. Only half received either an average (281 plants), good (74), or excellent (60) score.
This dire situation is noted in the department’s 2015 strategic overview document.
“Recent assessments indicate that the situation is deteriorating, with a large number of systems being awarded a purple drop [systems in crisis]. This is extremely concerning given that water resources are becoming ever more scarce, and, as a result, pollutants will need to be treated to ever-higher standards before discharge.”
Sewage spills came under the spotlight in Parliament last month, when Democratic Alliance MP Leon Basson told MPs that, despite having informed the minister [Mokonyane] about sewage problems in the Limpopo towns of Bela Bela, Modimole, Mookgophong, Lephalale and Thabazimbi, as well as in Cradock in the Eastern Cape, there had been no improvement.
Basson urged harsher action against the municipalities responsible. “We need to ensure that we improve our ability to hold polluters criminally responsible, and that the sanctions are harsh,” he told the House.
Mokonyane, who served as Gauteng premier before becoming national water and sanitation boss just over a year ago, said she had a plan to deal with communities’ calls for better sanitation services.
In an interview in Cape Town last month, she was surprisingly critical about the way in which the department has handled sanitation and water problems.
“We have not been focused … in the way we do work. We have all been working in a very haphazard manner. There has been no co-ordination. It is only recently that we have had an integrated approach to issues.”
She dismissed suggestions that her department’s budget was insufficient to fix the sector’s ageing infrastructure, a fundamental cause of many sewage spills and water supply problems.
“On the issue of an inadequate budget, we have not even used the one we have had adequately,” she said, and added that it was because of bad planning. Overall, the department had an unspent amount of R2.1-billion in the 2014-2015 financial year.
According to senior officials in her department, an estimated R67-billion is needed each year for the next 10 years to fund and maintain water and sanitation infrastructure.
The DA has called attention to this in Parliament and said only 45% of this amount was currently allocated. It also warned that the total required had grown to R850-billion.
Mokonyane said she favoured smaller schemes, noting that big projects had been shown internationally to be a “backward approach”.
“You need small water treatment plants that can be easily managed, and that can also be developed within a very short period of time — and that can cope with climate change and the realities.”
She also said South Africans needed to change the way they think about water, which was key to averting a supply crisis.
Urban areas have to look elsewhere
South Africa’s agriculture sector uses more water each year than any other user, and more than twice that of the next biggest, the country’s municipalities.
The department of water and sanitation says in a January 2015 strategic overview: “South Africa has a reliable yield of only about 15 billion cubic metres a year, comprising 68% surface water, 13% groundwater, 13% return flows and 6% from other sources, such as desalination.”
Reliable yield means water is available with a 98% assurance of supply. Return flows include water that has been used, treated and returned to the system.
“Current usage is estimated to be between 15 and 16 billion cubic metres a year, roughly split between agriculture (62%), municipal (27%), mining (3%), industry (3%), energy producers (2%) and forestry (3%).”
This means that actual water usage is currently higher than reliable yield, and, according to the department, it has been for several years.
The overview also highlights just how important irrigation is to the country’s food security and the agricultural sector’s export earnings.
“It is worth noting that, although agriculture uses over 60% of our water, only 12% of South Africa’s landmass is considered arable, and just 3% truly fertile. Only 1.5% of the land is under irrigation, producing 30% of the country’s crops, while 69% is given over to grazing and livestock farming.”
It says municipalities will increasingly have to seek alternative sources of water.
“Chief among these are desalination (of seawater, or brackish groundwater) and water re-use. These can be energy intensive and thus expensive, but are still generally less costly than inter-basin transfers.”
The largest desalination plant is at Mossel Bay in the Western Cape. It can treat 10 million litres of water a day.
Two bigger plants are planned for the eThekwini Municipality, which includes the City of Durban. On completion, these will have a combined capacity of 150 million litres a day.