/ 20 June 2021

There is shit in the Hennops River: ‘No way you can call this water’

Hennops River Pollution 0268 Dv(1)
Plastic and other waste pollution along the Hennops River. The sewage pollution of the river affects the water quality of the Rietvlei and Hartbeespoort dams. File photo: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G

Water-quality results have revealed that the amount of E.Coli bacteria in a tributary of the polluted Hennops River reached a staggering 52-million per 100ml between October 2020 and February this year. 

E.Coli counts are used to assess faecal pollution in water sources — and the regulatory limit for drinking water is zero counts per 100ml, and between 400 to 1 000 counts of E.Coli per 100ml for river ecosystems. 

The results show E.Coli counts running into the tens of millions at several sampling points of the Kaalspruit, a tributary of the Hennops, which flows into the Crocodile River before joining the Hartbeespoort Dam.

“At the Kaalspruit, the river is pitch black, and we have to go in that water to clean out all the plastic,” said Willem Snyman, who runs the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops (Fresh), a nonprofit organisation working to restore the Hennops ecosystem. 

“In the winter, the toxicity builds up hugely because it’s not diluted, so I think you can look at those figures doubling up now in winter,” Snyman said.

“These E.Coli figures are unheard of in the Vaal River system. It’s so big, yet it’s not getting any attention. It’s a huge unacknowledged and untreated health threat, and there’s no life left in the river.”

Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), had to lodge a request under the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia) with the City of Ekurhuleni to obtain the water quality results. 

This was after the results were presented by a City of Ekurhuleni water technician, Elsie van Staden, in a PowerPoint presentation on 30 March at the Hennops River catchment management forum. “Following the presentation, our request for an electronic copy was refused,” said Liefferink, who added that the process has been “cumbersome and time-consuming”.

In an email in April, Van Staden told Liefferink that, as an official of the City, she is bound by “a long-standing instruction that no results may be given out upon request. Such requests may only be handled through [an] official request to the office of the City mayor.

“The only permission we as officials have, is to present our analysis data at the different river forums because of an agreement from forums to never utilise any reported data against municipalities,” Van Staden informed Liefferink.

The FSE’s request to the mayor’s office, too, however, was unsuccessful. 

“I think they are embarrassed,” said Snyman from Fresh. “The whole problem is just being swept under the carpet. People aren’t really aware how bad their water is, and I don’t think the municipalities want to tell them.” 

Liefferink escalated the matter to senior officials in the water and sanitation department and was told by one that, “Each institution has its own policy on how they deal with the information”. 

On 30 April, she submitted a request for information in terms of the provisions of Paia. The prescribed period of more than a month passed before the results were finally sent to her last week.

Liefferink said that copies of water-quality reports ought to be made available to the public in the absence of the reinstatement of the Green and Blue Drop programmes

“Civil society is dependent on the water-quality results presented at the catchment management forums to understand the state of their drinking water and wastewater,” she said, adding that the same restrictions do not apply to other catchment management forums in the Vaal River system, for example.

The City of Ekurhuleni said there has not been a reluctance to issue water-quality results. “Water-quality results are presented across different forums, in line with the terms of reference that govern the forums,” said Nhlanhla Cebekhulu, its head of media relations. “The information is presented to the national department of water and sanitation as the custodian of the forums. The request should, therefore, have been directed to the … relevant official at the department. The City is guided by policies and procedures, which must be adhered to when information is requested.”

Cebekhulu said the part of the Kaalspruit River running through Tembisa and Ivory Park, emptying through Centurion Lake, has been an area of focus because of its high levels of pollution. “In addition to the dense urban settlement along the river, industrial, mining and agricultural activities have had a negative effect on the catchment. This influenced the water quality, as well as the water level, flow regime and stream morphology of the River.”

The problem won’t be solved only by improving maintenance and upgrading the area’s sewer line. “A comprehensive stakeholder engagement is required to address the social contribution of the problem, such as the misuse of the sewer system by the community, leading to multiple blockages in the system, and illegal dumping caused by community members and other illegal activities,” he said. 

Cebekhulu said that dumped waste, such as car tyres, driftwood and household waste, has also been identified as a key contributor to pollution in the Kaalspruit, together with frequent sewer spillages. 

“The latter has been attributed to intentional blocking of the sewer system to recover any jewellery and coins; depositing of foreign materials such as rags, animal skin, food, grease, carcasses et cetera, which cause sewer blockages; theft of sewer manholes; illegal mining of sand in the river, which ends up exposing sewer infrastructure; and inconsistent maintenance. Wetlands in the area have also been disturbed,” he said.

Cebekhulu said that the City has made significant strides in the planning phase in understanding the extent, severity and what is required to permanently address the Kaalspruit catchment challenges by commissioning various specialist studies to best inform the proposed interventions. 

“The area has been identified as a hotspot and placed on the priority list for awareness campaigns,” Cebekhulu said, adding that its water and sanitation department has made several repair and maintenance interventions in the system.

The department of water and sanitation did not respond to the Mail & Guardian’s inquiries this week.

Simone Liefferink, an aquatic hydrologist and Mariette Liefferink’s daughter, said the excessive E.Coli levels present a risk for any human use. 

“The E.Coli levels are unacceptable for all water uses, such as irrigation, livestock watering and recreational use, and significantly increase the risk of waterborne diseases,” she said.

Snyman said the sewage pollution of the Hennops River affects the water quality of the Rietvlei and Hartbeespoort dams, both of which are used to provide potable water, recreational activities and — for the Hartbeespoort Dam — irrigation farming.

The problem, he said, arises from “token” municipal wastewater-treatment plants and poor waste services along the course of the Hennops. “The water is so toxic, and the attendant problem is cyanobacteria [blue-green algae], which is so poisonous — it’s all growing on the sewage. This is the stuff you see in Rietvlei Dam and in the Hartbeespoort Dam.”

In 2014, satellite work by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research found that harmful cyanobacteria, toxic to fish and other species and which poses serious human health risks, are widespread in South Africa’s 50 largest dams. The Hartbeespoort Dam was among the three dams most affected by cyanobacterial surface scum, largely from wastewater and agricultural sources. 

Tarryn Johnston of the nonprofit organisation Hennops Revival said of the poor state of the Hennops River: “There is no way you can call this water. You can drink water, but you can’t drink this, and that’s the bottom line. The people living on the riverbanks can’t even use it as a freshwater source because it’s so polluted, so it’s actually robbing communities of freshwater. 

“All the plastic in the river is an eyesore, but we can take that out. What we need is to make this water again because it’s not — it’s like the Hennops sewage system. We are poisoning  ourselves by polluting the Hennops.”