/ 3 March 2024

Our water crisis is a tinderbox

Pump Station 3707 Dv Min
Efforts to get the pump station fixed by the municipality have been "fruitless". Photo by Delwyn Verasamy

The shit really has really hit the fan in South Africa.

In 2017, the Mail & Guardian reported that 50 000 litres of sewage flow into the country’s rivers every second.

Seven years later, the nationwide collapse of sewage infrastructure because of municipal dysfunction is an even more acute crisis: 46% of drinking systems don’t comply with microbiological standards, 67.6% of wastewater treatment works are failing and 47.4% of our water is lost or unaccounted for. It’s troubling, considering that most sewage works discharge into the same rivers from which drinking water is sourced.

As the South African Human Rights Commission noted in 2021, the failure of the country’s wastewater treatment works and the pollution of its water resources with poorly treated or raw sewage is a “dire and widespread” problem that should be declared a “national disaster”.

The level of negligence is illustrated in the department of water and sanitation’s Green Drop reports. The latest bleak instalment in December concluded that just 9% of wastewater treatment works are in the low-risk category; 25% are in the medium-risk category; 34% are in the high-risk category and 32% are in the critical-risk category. The number in the high and critical-risk categories has soared since 2013.

Sewage pollution has harrowing consequences for human health —   including waterborne pathogens such as cholera, salmonella, typhoid and hepatitis —   waterways and ecosystems.

It’s also an affront on human dignity as the M&G reports this week on the years-long sewage crisis that has swamped Mogale City, caused by the collapse of Percy Stewart wastewater treatment works, which makes the lives of residents intolerable.

It has turned rivers in the sensitive Unesco Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site — which is of global significance as it accommodates the fossil hominid sites of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans and Kromdraai  — into open sewers. It threatens human health, tourism, agriculture and groundwater in the Cradle. 

In October last year, the Mogale City local municipality said that it “wishes to dispel the negative perceptions” of a total disregard for the effects of effluent spillage into the World Heritage Site and remains committed to working alongside key partners “in ensuring a permanent resolve to the issues at hand”. 

“All this for the sustained benefit of our people, attracting increased investment, retaining our World Heritage status as the City of Human Origins, tourism and broader city industry growth and increased job creation rather than losses.”

But for Mogale City’s residents — like countless others in sewage-besieged towns and townships across the country — battling the worsening sewage pollution, these are merely empty words.