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Editorial: No urgency to fix Vaal sewage crisis

In 2007 local nonprofit Save the Vaal Environment (Save) met officials from the-then department of water affairs and forestry to discuss how to build new sewage infrastructure to deal with the pollution crisis in Emfuleni

It was told it would cost R87-million, but nothing happened. Save would be in court the next year — and five more times until 2020 — successfully securing court orders that compelled the dysfunctional municipality to sort out the sewage problems. 

With the exception of minor repairs, nothing happened. It is now in ongoing litigation with the three tiers of government.

As the crisis escalated, so have the costs ballooned. Figures of R7-billion are now being floated by government officials in the short, medium and long term.

Sewage is still pouring into the basements, homes and yards of residents of Boipatong, Sebokeng, Peacehaven, Three Rivers and other areas — and into the Vaal River itself, a vital water source for 19-million people. 

For almost 15 years people have had to deal with the crisis as municipal managers, mayors and ministers come and go without fixing the putrid mess outside their doors. 

In February, the South African Human Rights Commission released its report on the sewage contamination of the Vaal, which took more than two years to be published. It detailed how the Vaal was “polluted beyond acceptable levels” and irreparably damaged, with the raw sewage flowing into living areas a “major health hazard.

“The failure to repair and replace the sewage systems of the municipality is not only a failure to comply with the Water Services Act, it is a failure of many people, over many years, to run the municipality,” it found. There has been “extensive noncompliance at all spheres of government with legal frameworks”.

Water and Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu has now invoked legislation to take over the running of the water and sanitation system in Emfuleni. Her department has announced it will appoint contractors on an emergency basis to unlock the sewer system. 

But all this has taken two years.

The Vaal can be saved, but the biggest problem is the time it is taking to save it — time the economically depressed region doesn’t have. 

Private infrastructure projects and government housing schemes that will bring jobs and boost investment are on hold because of the collapsed wastewater system and other service-delivery issues. 

Tourism is a major opportunity for the riverfront region but nobody wants to sit next to a sewage-infested river. 

The Vaal is suffering the effects of bureaucracy and a lack of government funding. And there’s no urgency on the part of officials to fix this dangerous mess.

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