/ 27 November 2021

Poisoned: Tshwane’s boreholes, taps and soil

Sludge flows from the Rooiwal treatment plant into the Apies River and irrigation dams. (Andy Mkosi)

Theunis Vogel’s heavy boots sink into the moist earth as he trudges through his field of green mealies that reach past his elbows.

With a tired smile, the farmer speaks of how the recent rains have helped to wash off some of the sewage sludge that is poisoning his crops. But, on his farm in Vastfontein, north of Pretoria, the sewage contamination runs far and deep. 

“You can see some of the plants are not so lekker,” Vogel says. “Previously, the sewage sludge was lying on the mealies itself. You would peel the leaves and inside you could see that black sludge.”

His farm is at the nearest point to the dysfunctional Rooiwal wastewater treatment works, which is run by the City of Tshwane. “I get everything first, that’s why I’ve been fighting this pollution since 2005 … It has completely destroyed my farm.”

Vogel’s irrigation water is supplied by Tshwane from outlet water from Rooiwal. An August 2021 report by the Moreleta, Pienaars and Apies River Subcatchment Forum wrote: “Mr Vogel’s irrigation dams are repeatedly flooded by sludge spilling from these sludge lands. This problem has been continuing for years and is exacerbated by the belt presses not functioning.” 

The report noted how spills from the sludge fields contaminated downstream water sources at least seven times in 2019, five times in 2020 and seven times this year. 

Vogel says: “It comes out as this thick black sludge — like cream. Our crops are damaged … The plant is 80% dysfunctional and all this pollution from Rooiwal is being released into the Apies River and going to Hammanskraal. It’s a disgrace.”

Selby Bokaba, spokesperson for the City of Tshwane, says Rooiwal is receiving more sewage than what it was designated to treat. “The phased approach by the City started with the refurbishment of existing infrastructure and is currently in progress” and this work is expected to be completed by October next year.

In 2011, the department of water and sanitation declared the Apies River, which runs 2km away from Vogel’s property, a disaster because of pollution from Rooiwal. 

Since 2015, Vogel has been unable to farm vegetables safely for human consumption. “Look how malformed my beans were,” he says, flipping through hundreds of photos on his phone. “Wheat is supposed to be this nice golden brown, but these sewage spills caused mine to turn black.”

Like his neighbours, Vogel hasn’t been able to use his borehole for a decade because the underground water is polluted. That’s why, every day, the City dispatches drinking water from five water tankers to 56 households, including his. 

“You can’t sleep because it stinks. Fires have broken out on the sludge fields and they make you dizzy and give you headaches. There’s so many flies that you have to keep all your windows closed and can’t cook food during the day.

“You can never have your children over for a braai because you can’t be outside with all these flies,” says Vogel, describing how last year, a fly infestation killed 17 of his calves. 

Tshwane’s freshwater sources are being polluted because the City of Tshwane did not maintain its wastewater treatment works, a report by the South African Human Rights Commission concluded last month.

In its report, the commission says it is clear that the wastewater treatment works in the City of Tshwane are malfunctioning. “As a result, the freshwater sources — the Apies, Tolwane, Pienaar and Hennops rivers and the Roodeplaat and Leeukraal dams — are being polluted with untreated and partially treated sewage and sludge.

“Fauna and flora are dying or growing at an unhealthy rate, further polluting the water. People and animals who drink the water are vulnerable to illnesses such as bilharzia, cholera and hepatitis. Such exposure renders those most vulnerable like the elderly, children, and those who are ill, even more at risk of adverse health conditions,” reads the report.

(John McCann/M&G)

Consumption of polluted water has been taking place at least since 2008. 

The polluted water affects the groundwater and irrigation, further affecting crops and cattle, which graze on the land “affected by such water”, the report found. 

In its submission, the City of Tshwane conceded the failure of its wastewater plants were because of insufficient budget allocation, continuous changes in municipal managers and not having employees with the skill to maintain its plants. 

The report notes how, since 2011, efforts have been made by the water and sanitation department to prevent pollution, issuing several directives and, when the City failed to comply, instituting legal action.

The failure of wastewater treatment works and pollution of South Africa’s water resources is dire and widespread, says the commission, recommending that this be declared a national disaster. It is also calling for the establishment of a national water care entity to oversee wastewater treatment plants.

“Municipal managers who were in place during the deterioration of the wastewater treatment works in the City of Tshwane and who allowed pollution to continue through failure to deliver on their statutory and constitutional obligations [must] be held accountable … in terms permissible by legislation, including, through criminal prosecution.”

In her immaculately tended garden in Temba in Hammanskraal, pensioner Eva Kekana wrinkles her nose when she opens the tap in her yard.

‘There’s water but we can’t drink it. If you do, you will end up in hospital with diarrhoea. The water smells like faeces.”

She and her neighbours rely on municipal water tankers for drinking water. “But they don’t always come, and then we have to use our little money to go buy water, or else we will have no water to cook with or to drink. We are forced to bathe with this water, but it gives us sores.”

In another part of Temba, Sipho Llale and his cousins haul overflowing water containers from a water tanker and begin their dusty walk home. “We have water in our taps but it’s disgusting,” says Llale’s mother, Akamia, who is unemployed. 

“If you drink it, you get sick. We don’t have money to buy water so we rely on these trucks for our drinking water but they only come every few weeks. It’s terrible to live like this.”

Back on Vogel’s farm, water analysis by hydrologist Johan van der Waal has shown an E coli count of 520000 parts per 100ml; the regulatory limit is 0. 

In a November 2020 report, Van der Waal says that from the detailed record of soil and plant analysis, photographs, Google Earth images, reports and court orders, the “only conclusion is that the land in question cannot be used for crop production”. 

This is emphasised by the fact that the Apies River has been declared a disaster area because of the water quality deterioration. “This is mainly due to the continued problems experienced on the site [Rooiwal] with a refusal by the City of Tshwane to rectify the situation as well as the extent of historical pollution.”

The main component of the degradation is the elevated organic matter that leads to the “dominance of detrimental organisms (E coli and others) and the elevated chemical and biological oxygen demand. Coupled with the elevated nutrient levels as well as heavy metals and pollutant elements, the management of plant health and yields become impossible to perform.”

The conundrum is that farmers cannot produce crops for the market and general consumption. “However, their livelihoods depend on the income generated from the rightful use of land that is zoned for agriculture.” 

The continued release of polluted water from the Rooiwal wastewater works infringes on the constitutional rights of the farmers to legally use their land and the constitutional right of the general population regarding a clean and healthy environment “and by implication, safe food for consumption”.

Vogel tells of how his neighbours had planted cabbage and spinach. “You would cut it open and see this black sludge inside. The market wouldn’t accept it because it’s a risk. The water is making the ground sick and we have to keep changing and planting other things.”

He has lost more than R4-million and even though he has two court orders — in 2016 and 2019 — ordering the municipality to repair, maintain and prevent the pollution on his farm, neither have been adhered to.

Vogel is not a man that cries easily. “But I have come close many, many times,” he says. “This is a big crisis — that is why I’m fighting all the way. This farm is my pension, all my life savings. I want to retire but no one is going to buy my land.”

Sacrificial land: Theuns Vogel’s groundwater and soil is contaminated with sewage, harming crops and cattle. (Andy Mkosi)

City of Tshwane responds

Bokaba told the Mail & Guardian that the Rooiwal wastewater treatment works is receiving more sewage than what it was designated to treat. “The phased approach by the City started with the refurbishment of existing infrastructure and is currently in progress,” Bokaba says, adding this work is expected to be completed by October next year. 

The next phase will be the extending of the existing treatment capacity by adding extra capacity required “due to the ever increasing sewage inflow” as the City develops. 

“The excess sludge produced in the biological treatment of sewage must be removed and correctly disposed not to harm the environment or pollute the Apies River. The anaerobic digesters at both the Rooiwal east and west plants are being refurbished and gradually put into operation. “ 

“The dewatering of the sludge from the anaerobic digesters is to be performed by the dewatering facilities at both two areas on the Rooiwal plant, the bottom belt presses and the top belt presses.”  

The four bottom belt presses are operational, he says, and two of the four top belt presses are operational as they have been refurbished in the previous financial year. The upgrading of the other two top belt presses is included in the Phase 1 refurbishment project, which is a multi-year project. “The equipment has been manufactured and delivery is expected in 2022.”

When the M&G visited the plant, the main belt presses on the top of the site were not working and were covered in cobwebs.

Hammanskraal’s residents, including Eva Kekana, get water from municipal tankers. (Andy Mkosi)

Bokaba says it is required that phase 2 extension must follow as soon as possible to ensure additional treatment capacity.  “The quality of effluent would become compliant to the regulator (department of water and sanitation) authorisation. The drafting of requirements or specifications to rehabilitate the Apies River and Leeukraal Dam at Hammanskraal is part of the phase 1 project.  The rehabilitation of these water bodies will possibly be part of the phase 2 extension project.”

Surrounding farmers, he says, are allowed by department of water and sanitation authorisation to receive a maximum of eight million litres of effluent a day. “The expected variation in effluent quality negatively impacted on crop quality and therefore they have submitted insurance claims against the City which was duly assessed by group legal. 

“The  office of the city manager duly engaged with those claimants during official meetings about their claims. In respect of Rooiwal, claims are pending and farmers have appointed attorneys to represent them,” says Bokaba, adding the City delivers potable water through water tankers to the affected farmers, “free of charge”.