Spoiler alert: Raw sewage flows through northern Joburg

A sewage crisis is bubbling away in Johannesburg’s north. Used nappies, illegal stormwater connections, old infrastructure and huge new housing and shopping estates are forcing engineers to scramble to keep the sewage from flowing into homes and rivers.

The Vaal crisis started this way: there were many seemingly disconnected faults in the sewerage system, until it reached breaking point. With 80% of the country’s sewage treatment plants not working properly, it is also not a unique crisis. Often it is just about holding it all together, thanks to engineers and workers who use things as crude as duct tape to keep old infrastructure working.

READ MORE: The Vaal remains up shit creek

“It takes one manhole cover to get stolen and you have got shit flowing into a river. How do you stop people stealing manhole covers? You don’t.”

The engineer saying this works mainly in the north of Johannesburg. “We’re connecting new developments all the time and it doesn’t feel like anyone cares how impossible that makes things.”

The problems caused by big developments along the Jukskei River are very real. The old border between Johannesburg and Tshwane is now an area of must-have property. It runs from the R6-billion development at Steyn City to Africa’s largest shopping mall, 10km to the east.

Johannesburg Water has to supply the estates and malls with water and to treat the sewage that comes out of them. The rapid development in this area has exposed the rusted core of the utility’s infrastructure. In its financial plan, Johannesburg Water says all its treatment plants and pipelines are worth R45-billion. But it needs to raise R25-billion to fix these and build new capacity.

Adding to this is that Johannesburg Water has a problem with people not paying for 25% of the water it distributes. That means less money for infrastructure.

And some of the big estates along the Jukskei have been found to be part of the problem.

An inspection in May at Waterfall Estate, the development surrounding the Mall of Africa along the N1, found that developer Balwin Properties was using unregistered water meters. This meant the city was not getting money from the water being used. Balwin had also used fire hydrants to get water.

Another inspection in June found similar use of unregistered meters. The Waterfall Investment Company was fined R8-million and two of its employees were arrested. An employee of Johannesburg Water was also arrested for supplying the water meters.

Both developers said at the time that they were not responsible for the illegal meters being installed and blamed homeowners.

Engineers also say these homeowners are a problem. People flush used nappies, cloth and other solids down toilets, which block pipes. The resulting pressure either breaks the pipes — Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has said the city’s pipelines have 45 000 leaks — or forces sewage to flow out where manhole covers are missing.

The problem is so acute that the utility has hired an extra shift of workers to clean up the grates outside pump stations, which were installed to catch as much of this solid waste as possible. Johannesburg Water says a third shift is needed but again there isn’t enough money for this.

The sewage lines running into pump stations also have illegal connections, such as stormwater running into the raw sewage, which is illegal. Sewerage systems are built to handle a certain amount of waste. Sudden floods of water after a Highveld storm overwhelm treatment plants so raw sewage then flows into wetlands and rivers.

These connections often happen behind the walls of estates, and officials who would oversee this say they don’t have the capacity to check every estate.

Developers also create another problem. Illegal dumping has led to blockages in the sewage lines that lead to the Northern Works treatment plant. People working there have previously told the Mail & Guardian that smaller developers leave behind rubble that then washes into the plant during heavy rains. Excavators then have to come and fix the problem. All the while, raw sewage flows into the Jukskei.

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