The fence is new: green, imposing and too high to climb over. But it does little to stop the milky-white sewage flowing — knee-deep — through the pump station that should be sending it a kilometre away for treatment.
A rusted electricity box that would otherwise power the solitary pump lies partially under the sewage. A manhole cover next to the fence, built to allow technicians to inspect the large cement sewer line, lies on the ground next to the blocked line.
No liquid moves. Instead, toilet paper, shit, yellow and red condoms, and a burnt electricity plug have helped jam the entire sewage line.
With its path blocked, the liquid sewage does what liquids do best: it flows across the veld that surrounds Deneysville and Refengkgotso, two towns situated just over the Free State’s border with Gauteng.
The sewage’s path is easy to follow in winter: yellow and black are the normal colours here because it’s winter, and fires have burned the dry grass. Where the veld is green, and herons and other water birds flap about, there is sewage. Fat fingers of milky water flow over bent grass, each blade throttled by wet toilet paper. All of this eventually flows into the Vaal Dam or into the Taaibosspruit, and then into the Vaal River below the dam wall.
On its way, it threads through the yards of people’s homes, businesses and makeshift football pitches. Locals have had to engineer their way around this. Larger streams of sewage are bridged with rocks, which give way under foot. Smaller streams are hurdled with a running jump, made precarious by the landing pads on each side eroding into the sewage.
In Refengkgotso, neat RDP homes are connected to the grey-brick flush toilets in their backyards by plank bridges. These sink under the weight of a step, allowing thin trickles of sewage to flow over them.
At night, passage is allowed by solar garden lights shoved into the soggy soil. The smell of raw sewage is ever present, becoming overwhelming when the wind picks up.
All of this is despite government pledging R15-million to fix the problem. That was two years ago, when the Mail & Guardian and other media reported on two settlements that became emblematic of South Africa’s sewage crisis.
Deneysville and Refengkgotso sit next to one of the most important pieces of water infrastructure in the country, the Vaal Dam. Pipes nearby suck in water to supply Rand Water and, in turn, the 10-million people of Gauteng. Untreated waste from Deneysville and Refengkgotso makes it harder for the utility to treat water to drinking quality.
By July 2015, the wastewater treatment works built to clean sewage was overwhelmed. Equipped to handle two megalitres of water a day, it was getting five megalitres a day as population levels increased. That equated to 57 litres of sewage every second.
This got to the works through two main sewer pipelines, with two pump stations sending that sewage through the pipelines. The one that sits silent today did not work in 2015, allowing sewage to flow into the veld. Its one pump could no longer handle the pressure and broke, despite it being a legal requirement for all water and sewage infrastructure to have backups built into them. The bolts and foundation that would hold a second pump were in place, but there was no pump. There is still no pump.
The second pump station worked at half capacity, and still only functions at half capacity. This meant that most of the sewage generated by homes in the area never made it to the wastewater treatment works. But, even then, the plant was unable to treat sewage and instead, stored it in a disused quarry. The sewage that didn’t make it to the plant, because of the faulty pumps, simply flowed into groundwater and the Vaal.
The effect of this is recorded in the minutes of the quarterly meetings held by the Vaal Dam’s water forum. In 2015, Rand Water said its water quality tests showed that levels of ammonia, nitrate, fluoride and phosphates in the dam were above what is considered safe.
In minutes from February, Rand Water officials note that there is “more noncompliance than compliance” with the legal requirements for water quality in the Vaal area. Water tests by the utility in March showed that water being released by the Deneysville and Refengkgotso plant had illegal levels of ammonia, nitrate, phosphate and E coli.
In 2015, with mounting pressure on government to intervene in what is a municipal area of control, the water and sanitation department issued the Metsimaholo Local Municipality with a compliance notice. This is the strongest action that one government department can take against another arm of government. It ordered the municipality to “address issues of lack of proper management and technical skills to operate the [wastewater] plant”.
An emergency R9-million was budgeted by the department to fix the plant. This quickly grew by R6-million as the scale of the problem became apparent. The then Water and sanitation director general, Margaret-Ann Diedricks, said her department was “trying to correct the mistakes and address the challenges by assisting the municipality” to ensure it ran its wastewater plant “according to those regulations that are in place”.
The emergency fix would act as a plaster, making sure that the plant could continue to treat some sewage.
Work on this has not been completed. Local officials blame the national water and sanitation department for not delivering the R15-million. People say there has been little progress since Diedricks resigned suddenly last year.
The minutes of the Vaal Dam water forum confirm this. In February, a representative for Metsimaholo is recorded as saying that she was “struggling to get hold of anyone to assist with the status of the project”.
Little has changed at the plant since the M&G visited it in 2015. The front gates still lean drunkenly on their hinges.
An engineer working with the water and sanitation department, who is involved in sewerage plant upgrades in the Free State, says the unfinished work at the Deneysville plant is the reason the two pump stations have not been fixed. “They don’t want to start pumping up to the plant when it can’t even handle the volume [of waste] that it has now.”
The long-term solution is a new plant. At a cost of R142-million, this will treat six megalitres a day. The site, next door to the old plant, has been flattened and enclosed with a silver security fence. The plant will take several years to build. Until then, the sewage will continue to flow through people’s yards.
Doctors and nurses in the area, who are not allowed to talk to the media, say this will result in more people becoming ill.
The health problems they list as unique to this area are a carbon copy of those the World Health Organisation warns come with untreated sewage: hepatitis A, a liver infection; salmonella, which causes diarrhoea and typhoid fever; skin infections and rashes; dysentery; intestinal infections; eye infections; infections from mould; and respiratory infections from breathing in spores from dried sewage. Some of these are fatal, although a direct causal link is impossible to prove.
For now, two years after being promised an emergency fix to their sewage crisis, the residents of Deneysville and Refengkgotso will have to continue engineering a way to live with their own shit.