The government has for more than a decade “passed the buck” regarding the Vaal River’s sewage pollution by the Emfuleni local municipality, said Maureen Stewart, the vice-chairperson of the nonprofit organisation, Save the Vaal Environment (Save).
This apparent lack of accountability and consequence management has been highlighted in the South African Human Rights Commission’s hard-hitting final report of its Gauteng provincial inquiry into the Vaal River’s sewage problem, she said.
Stewart was speaking at a webinar panel, hosted by the Mail & Guardian, to launch the commission’s report on Wednesday.
“We’ve dealt with many municipal managers at Emfuleni, and it’s always a funding issue, and it’s never their fault — it’s always someone else’s fault,” she said.
“The department of water and sanitation says ‘it’s not our role to operate municipalities’ and that is probably true, but there seems to be on the one hand a kind of ‘passing the buck system’ that exists, and on the other, there isn’t any consequence management, and no one takes responsibility.”
When the “going gets tough” and responsible officials are transferred or resign, “then someone new comes in, and they inherit the problems, and the circle starts all over again”.
Although the department had issued directives against Emfuleni for pollution in the river, she said these were not enforced. “The report highlighted how there’s strong legislation in place, but we’ve got a situation where different levels of government are not enforcing legislation. This has been the biggest problem.”
In its report, the commission found that the Vaal River has for years been polluted “beyond acceptable standards” by untreated sewage from Emfuleni’s inoperative, dilapidated wastewater treatment plants.
“The consequence is that the pollution impacts natural ecosystems directly dependent on the water in and from the Vaal … The flow of raw sewage on public streets, paths and into homes poses a major health hazard to people and is an obvious violation of their rights to dignity as well,” the report stated.
“We’ve seen where the courts have ordered the local authorities to institute these particular orders [to stop the pollution], and then the state itself failed to do that,” he said.
The right to water is enshrined in the Constitution and “if the state cannot fulfil that fundamental right, then we’re in a very chaotic situation”.
Johann Tempelhoff, an extraordinary professor at the South African Water History Archival Repository at North West University, noted how Rand Water had become involved in developing technical water capabilities and capacity in Emfuleni in 2009 but withdrew after the municipality did not pay for bulk water debt.
“We’re talking millions of rands,” he said.
On Wednesday, the department of water and sanitation said its Vaal River intervention strategy “won’t be an overnight success” and that work would begin on the refurbishment of Emfuleni’s pump stations.
Tempelhoff said residents of the Vaal felt “dejected” and “done in by the government” because of the extensive pollution.
Stewart agreed, telling of how living conditions all the way upstream to Deneysville at the Vaal Barrage had been made “impossible” by the sewage pollution.
“The health risks are enormous, and the pollution discourages investment in businesses that will create employment, especially the tourism industry, which was developing very nicely along the Vaal River. But no one wants to come here to be entertained and to smell sewage. This has caused job losses in the Emfuleni jurisdiction.”
Further downstream, in Parys, she said, river rafting is popular. “But people don’t want to do that because of the water quality. It’s so important that we get this situation right.”
Among the report’s raft of recommendations are that the water and sanitation department must develop and implement policies and standards to deal with water crises, the Vaal River’s contamination in particular. To avoid a repeat, the river and its associated water infrastructure must be declared as critical infrastructure to ensure it will be protected and restored.