The state of Joburg’s pipes

Johannesburg’s infrastructure includes 22 000 manhole covers. To get water to homes, the utility has 117 reservoirs 31 pump stations and 1 100km of piping. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Johannesburg’s infrastructure includes 22 000 manhole covers. To get water to homes, the utility has 117 reservoirs 31 pump stations and 1 100km of piping. (Oupa Nkosi/M&G)

Johannesburg’s infrastructure includes 22 000 manhole covers. To get water to homes, the utility has 117 reservoirs, 31 pump stations and 1 100km of piping. Treating the water requires a further 35 pump stations, six treatment plants and another 1 100km of piping.
Johannesburg Water obtains clean water from Rand Water, which gets it from the Vaal Dam. The utility then has to treat dirty water until it’s safe to release into the rivers.

In the north of Johannesburg, most of the raw sewage heads to the giant Northern Works wastewater treatment plant, next to Diepsloot. Any dirty water spilled here ends up in a system of rivers that flows all the way north to the Limpopo River, and eventually the Indian Ocean via Mozambique.

The national water and sanitation department, the owner of all this water, has constantly stepped in, issuing directives to faulty sewage treatment works, to force the city to fix the problem.

But, along the Jukskei, the problem is so big and the budget so small that there is little engineers can do. The plan for this area is part of the reconciliation scenario that has been drawn up for the Crocodile West catchment area.

Each river system has a scenario drawn up for it. This one, from 2009, says water demand in northern Johannesburg at that time was 220-million cubic metres a year. By 2030, it will be 302-million cubic metres — far more water for drinking will need to be treated at sewage plants.

Engineers are struggling to get water to the sewage plants. The standout example of this is the Acacia Street pump station. Built in a wetland in 2005, it’s supposed to take sewage from estates in the area and pump it to Northern Works. It frequently fails to do this, and the water and sanitation department has threatened to issue a directive to force Johannesburg Water to fix the problem. The utility, in response to this, has said there’s little it can do. It doesn’t have the budget to build a new pump station outside of the wetland.

And the problems at the current station are mostly not of its own making. Electric cable theft halts the pumps and there are illegally connected sewerage lines directing stormwater into the treatment plants.

To help, the capacity of the Northern Works wastewater treatment plant is being increased. Another plant in Driefontein is also being upgraded and a new plant has been finished at Lanseria to the west. This is starting to solve the problem of sewage spilling into rivers. But the backlog in other parts of the system, including pipelines, is both critical and expensive. A kilometre of new piping costs R1-million. Johannesburg Water has 2 200km of ageing pipeline.

Sipho Kings

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