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Gauteng’s most vital resource irreparably damaged – SAHRC

The Vaal river is “polluted beyond acceptable standards” because millions of litres of untreated sewage enter the crucial river system each day from broken wastewater treatment plants in the embattled Emfuleni local municipality.

This is among the findings of the South African Human Rights Commission’s damning 117-page report released on Wednesday, after its 2018 Vaal inquiry into sewage pollution.

Its collapsed infrastructure has been unable to properly process sewage and other wastewater produced in Emfuleni and sewage and wastewater from the City of Johannesburg and the Midvaal municipality.

“The consequence is that pollution is affecting natural ecosystems directly dependent on the water in and from the Vaal,” commissioner Jonas Sibanyoni wrote in the report.

The effect of the raw sewage running into the Vaal and the municipality’s streets, and to a critical water resource, is significant. 

“In the absence of a timely and effective response from the multiple spheres of government, Gauteng’s most vital water resource may very well have been irreparably damaged.”

Civil claims

The repercussions could see a string of legitimate civil claims against the department of water and sanitation for damages that could escalate to the Constitutional Court, says the report.

It recommends that the cabinet should seriously consider national government intervention in the running of the embattled municipality, with assistance from Rand Water and South African Local Government (SALGA), to avoid possible litigation against the government over the sewage crisis, which is an “obvious liability to the state”. 

No accountability

Despite having the ability to do so, it did not appear to the commission that the water and sanitation department and the department of environment, forestry and fisheries had been able to hold the municipality accountable for causing sewage pollution as required by the National Water Act and the National Environmental Management Act. 

“The pollution in fact continued for a number of years without being successfully contained.” 

This does not “instil confidence that legislation … which enables accountability has (been) effectively applied”. 

Recommendations

The respondents have been put on terms to provide plans within the next 60 days on the commission’s recommendations and requests. This includes that:

  • The water and sanitation department or the Gauteng department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs, together with experienced wastewater management specialists and respective treasury departments, draw up a cost-effective interim plan to urgently stop the pollution;
  • The water and sanitation department collaborate with the environment department and use the Green Scorpions to investigate offences;
  • National and provincial governments conduct a detailed needs assessment for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the Vaal, contracting skilled people to repair and replace defective sewage systems; and
  • The water and sanitation department reintroduce the Blue and Green Drop transparent quality measuring system. 

Emfuleni’s failures

The municipality did not dispute its clear responsibility to provide water supply services and sanitation services, or that it had not fulfilled this responsibility and “instead conceded these failures were attributable to its failing wastewater infrastructure”. 

Deviations from municipal management, which posed serious risks for the municipality and service delivery recipients, are detailed in independent forensic reports and identified by the Auditor General. 

“In the absence of stringent consequence management, the public purse is affected and  constitutional duties flouted while people continue to live in deteriorating conditions.”

Public servants and municipal administrators and staff who failed to comply with their obligations and contributed to the disintegration of the municipality should be disciplined or dismissed, says the report. Any irregular or fruitless and wasteful expenditure must be investigated and the money recouped.

Rights violations

The sewage contamination has violated a number of constitutional rights, including the rights to human dignity.

“It cannot be that for a long period of time, raw, untreated sewage in homes, streets, in schools and in public areas accords with one’s sense of dignity.
Nor can it be respectful of the right to dignity when one’s source of food is threatened and when one is forced to consume water that has raw, untreated sewage over a period of time.”

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That children play in untreated wastewater and are exposed to sewage pollution at schools, is “antithetical” to the best interests of any child in the Emfuleni area.

The flow of sewage into the yards of community members must make such spaces “almost uninhabitable”. 

Exposure to raw sewage, the air that surrounds it, and the drinking water from the polluted Vaal causes a number of diseases, such as cholera, typhoid and salmonella. 

The commission accepts the “causal connection” between regular consumption and exposure to polluted water by humans as resulting in ill-health to them. 

Extensive non-compliance by the state

The commission says the contents of its final report, media reports and publications by experts lends itself to a conclusion of extensive non-compliance at all spheres of government with legal frameworks that seek to protect water resources and regulate water and sanitation services. 

“Despite concerted efforts by DWS and national and Gauteng provincial treasury, the information presented in this report demonstrates the level to which degeneration must occur within a local municipality before a firm intervention is made at much cost to the public and the state.”

Emfuleni did not publish financial or water services development plans in the last three or four years. “Given the extent of the degradation of the sewage pumps, the megalitres of raw untreated sewage still flowing into the Vaal and onto streets, and homes, it is not unreasonable to expect that at some tier of government, a water services development plan would have been requested.”

Yet, in this time, neither the province, nor the DWS and the department of cooperative governance and traditional affairs (Cogta), exercised their oversight roles effectively. 

“It would similarly be safe to conclude that the DWS and Cogta failed to intervene effectively or to the extent necessary to manage the ongoing sewage crises.”

Plants, animals dying

About 19-million people depend on the Vaal. At the inquiry, national treasury noted how its pollution reverses gains from the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a vital but costly project for the government. “The water from the Vaal River, the Vaal Dam, and the Barrage is clearly essential to the survival of persons and industry in Gauteng.

Prolonged and continued pollution will “invariably result in extreme water scarcity in the very near future”.  

Sewage has flowed into the Vaal for 40 years and it is severely contaminated. “Both fauna and flora are dying and being harmed to the extent that damage and imbalance in the ecosystems may be irreversible.”

Impacts have already been documented for the reduced safety of the Yellowfish population, endemic to such rivers. The river’s pollution, too, is making it “unattractive to tourists”.

Report welcomed

Maureen Stewart, of non-profit Save the Vaal, says the report “tells it exactly as it is”.

“We’re pleased with the recommendations the commission has made and we’ll be very interested to see the response of the authorities … to actually make something happen on the ground. The proof of the pudding is in the water quality in the Vaal River.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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