Northern Works sewage nightmare turns Jukskei black

Gauteng’s most problematic sewage treatment plant has released millions of litres of untreated sewage into the Jukskei River.

The problem is not isolated. The plant – Northern Works, outside Johannesburg – has been releasing untreated sewage for a decade. It is just one of hundreds of plants nationwide with the same problem.

Two issues led to the latest spill, according to the national water and sanitation department. One of the massive pipes carrying raw sewage into the plant got blocked by rubbish. The pressure forced sewage out of manhole covers and into the Jukskei. The second issue came about as a result of the upgrades happening at the plant. Here, the main sewage pond overfilled with sewage, which then flowed into the neighbouring river.

The reserve pond is being upgraded after years of neglect. Since late 2015, the pond has been desilted and lined to prevent polluted water leaking into the soil.

Johannesburg Water said the nearly R300-million upgrade will allow the plant to start operating at its full capacity. That will allow it to treat the 460 megalitres of wastewater it gets every day from Alexandra, Sandton, Randburg, Bedfordview and the rapidly expanding suburbs of northern Johannesburg. An Olympic-sized swimming pool is 2.5 megalitres.

The Greater Kyalami Conservancy – a nongovernmental group working in the area – said this happens at least once a month. The water and sanitation department said big sewage spills have been happening since upgrade work started late last year. But groups such as the conservancy say the plant has been releasing untreated water for at least a decade.

That sewage flows into the Jukskei, and then into the Crocodile River. That in turn flows into Hartbeespoort Dam, the major source of drinking and irrigation water for the eastern part of the North West province. The latest spill – late last week – flowed through this system over the weekend. Locals said the sewage was so thick that it turned the river into a dark shade of grey, and in parts black. Residents of Hartbeespoort went as far as to erect signs warning of biological waste.

The dam has been struggling with eutrophication – a response to an oversupply of nutrients that causes explosive plant and algae growth, in turn depleting oxygen and killing aquatic life – for decades.

The Crocodile River, its main source of water, is joined by the Jukskei and Hennops rivers. These drain everything north of central Johannesburg and carry heavy levels of polluted water from people and mining. The resulting nutrients feed algae in the dam and drive the eutrophication of its water.

Some R900-million was spent in the decade from 2004 to rehabilitate the dam. But the national water department has said in Parliamentary briefings that the high level of pollution flowing into the dam means the work is merely patching, not solving, the problem.


John Wesson, North West provincial manager for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, said the effect of the latest leak on the river and dam would be to “destroy the entire food chain in the area” and make the ecosystem “virtually sterile”.

This would only change if heavy rains in the area fell and flushed out the sewage, he said. But the situation will inevitably be repeated as work continues on Northern Works.

In a response to civil society questions about the plant late last year, Johannesburg Water said: “Sewage spills are due to frequent operational failures as a result of aging infrastructure, continuous power failures due to vandalism and theft of cables and limited emergency storage capacity in emergency retention dams due to silting up over the years.”


Dreams of clean water are washed away

By the government’s own admission, South Africa’s wastewater treatment plants are struggling to keep up with the growing demand. Municipalities run 821 plants, which have few engineers and little budget to upgrade and maintain them. The national government can only intervene when things break down.

As a way of nudging municipalities to fix the problem, the water and sanitation department releases its annual Green Drop report that assesses treatment plants.

The last report found that 40% of plants were in a critical state and that the more remote the municipality, the worse the problem is. In rural areas it’s almost certain that a town’s water treatment plant will release polluted water into rivers. This is why the European Union handed citrus growers in Limpopo and farmers in Mpumalanga export warnings – polluted irrigation water was cited as the reason.

Big metros fare better but rapid population growth and neglected maintenance mean that even these plants do not always release clean water into rivers.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
Advertising

ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19
Advertising

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday