It’s deep winter in Delmas on the Mpumalanga border with Gauteng. There are circles of green where crops are irrigated, but otherwise the veld is either black from fires or yellow and brittle because of the cold, dry season.
But below the town’s Botleng wastewater treatment plant, uncharateristically green grass marks a path down the gradual slope from the plant to the energetic stream that flows past it.
The green shoots may look pretty but it is an illusion. The grass stinks of sewage. Brown water, covered in a multicoloured layer of slick slime, makes its way through the grass, filling the holes made by the hoofs of cattle in the muddy ground. It flows unabated into the stream. Dirty white froth flows over boulders that people precariously step on when crossing the 3m-wide stream.
This scene is not unusual. South Africa has more than 800 wastewater treatment plants but fewer than 60 discharge clean water. The rest, which are not working properly, overload streams, rivers and dams with nutrient-rich water, choking them with hyacinth and algae. It also packs the rivers with faecal matter and E coli that make people sick.
Unlike the others, in the case of Botleng and its twin treatment plant in the town of 90 000, there is data showing exactly what effect they are having on water quality downstream. The two plants are adjacent to the streams that form the Bronkhorstspruit River. That flows into its namesake dam, 30km to the north. The dam is covered in a layer of green algae — although it had been covered in the more dangerous blue algae, which was recently killed off by the cold.
This has been the case for the past three years. Before that, locals say the dam’s water was among the cleanest in the country. People could see fish swimming along the bottom. Watersports brought people eager to escape Tshwane for the weekend. It even started drawing people away from the Hartbeespoort Dam when sewage pollution turned that dam green.
Now people are too afraid to get into the Bronkhorstspruit water. They recount the many times that they have developed diarrhoea and skin infections.
Alarmed by this, one local, Mike van der Walt, contracted an independent water analysis to see what was causing these health problems.
According to the analysis, “water samples are highly contaminated by sewage and the water quality exceeds the SANS [South African National Standards] 241 drinking water quality guideline”.
High concentrations of algae and faecal coliforms such as E coli were present. Faecal coliforms are directly linked to human waste.
The analysis concludes: “The water should not be used for human or animal use without proper treatment.”
Several estates around the dam do just that, as do people downriver who rely on the river for drinking water.
The Green Scorpions, the investigative arm of the environment department, did their own tests in March but the results have not been released.
The water and sanitation department has also done tests on the Botleng and Delmas plants as part of the annual Green Drop reporting system, which surveys the country’s 824 sewage systems.
The last report, in 2013, was extremely critical of Botleng, noting that it was not discharging clean water at any time. “The plant’s appearance is consistent with poor maintenance practice, with a number of equipment defunct, sludge spillages not cleared, unsafe and uncontrolled earthworks, and vegetative growth on and in most civil structures.”
The Green Drop Report added: “Staff attitude is apathetic and unresponsive. Poor management practice is evident.” Workers do not work shifts and middle management “leave for extended lunch breaks”. The offices and laboratory, where water is meant to be tested to see whether it is safe to release, had an “unhygienic fly breeding problem”.
In a 2013 speech in Delmas, then water minister Edna Molewa said: “Delmas has a history of water-borne diseases, namely diarrhoea and typhoid.” Outbreaks of these occurred in 1993, 2005 and 2007, with smaller outbreaks after the summer rains each year. Her department spent R750 000 in 2007 to improve the “management capacity” of the municipal water works.
Another R54-million is being spent to refurbish the Botleng plant, although it is less than a decade old, and R72-million is being spent on the Delmas plant.
But this sort of spending is all the national government can do. The two plants fall under the Victor Khanye municipality, which is responsible for setting up and maintaining the sewerage plants, and for upgrading them in line with population growth.
That rarely happens. In research for previous articles on pollution in the Olifants River catchment area, of which the Bronkhorstspruit is part, officials bemoaned the municipalities’ lack of attention to maintenance.
Victor Khanye is a classic example. Data from the treasury shows that the municipality is failing to account for and provide basic services. Half its money is recorded as “fruitless and wasteful expenditure”. The wastewater budget is R22-million this year, but the municipality spends just 1% of this on maintenance. The international standard is 15%.
The municipality did not respond to questions on whether or not it was aware of its plants releasing untreated sewage, and what it was doing to fix the problem.
A frustrated civil servant at the national water and sanitation department, who did not want to be named, says her department has spent millions to fix things when municipalities don’t. “We keep intervening to stop this sort of catastrophic spillage [of waste] because municipalities just won’t invest in maintenance.”
In all likelihood, the more than R100-million being spent in Delmas will be a temporary solution, she says.
But that is not unusual. Nearly 800 wastewater plants, 80% of the national total, are in similar state of disarray. The continued lack of municipal maintenance means green water and sick people will remain the status quo for those who live outside the better-resourced metros.
And Delmas dumps on Bronkhorstspruit
Waste from homes around the Bronkhorstspruit Dam is either treated on site and then released into the dam, or it is sent to a so-called package station. This removes the solid sewage and then pumps the still untreated liquid waste over the mountains to the wastewater treatment plant in Bronkhorstspruit. The plant there uses a chemical and mechanical process to separate and make the waste safe for use as fertiliser and for release into the nearby river.
But the plant is not working.
An experienced water technician, who has been into the plant and who also does not want to be named, says it is blocked with compacted human waste. Without maintenance, the machines that break down the waste have themselves broken down. Wastewater now flows over the solid waste that has caused the plant to seize up — but, from the outside, it looks as if it is working, according to the technician. “About 95% of that plant’s capacity is now just solid waste. It would take a jackhammer to break it apart now.”
It is the same at the package station next to the Bronkhorstspruit Dam. Overgrown and dilapidated, it stands silent. The tell-tale signs of waste surround the plant — mud and green growth, fed by the nutrient-rich sewage that spills out of a rusted grate in the middle of the station.
Someone who has seen the plant trying to operate says, because of the blockages at the main wastewater plant in Bronkhorstspruit, the waste cannot be pumped there. Instead, it is spilling out of the plant, flowing down the hill and into the dam.
Bronkhorstspruit is doing to people downriver what Delmas is doing to it. — Sipho Kings