/ 22 May 2023

Cholera cases continue to climb in Hammanskraal

About seven billion litres of sewage are released every day into rivers and dams. (Andy Mkosi)

Minister of Water and Sanitation Senzo Mchunu has sent technical teams to work with the City of Tshwane and the health department in response to the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria.

The latest tests show that the drinking water quality from the Temba water treatment works does not meet minimum drinking water quality, the water and sanitation department said in a statement.

“The water quality challenges are therefore, in central Hammanskraal, from water supplied by the city.”

The city said the results from sampling testing taken from multiple sites around Temba and Hammanskraal to trace the outbreak indicated that “zero cholera” was detected from the piped water supply.

“Multiple reservoirs, fire hydrants, primary schools, clinics and other locations that receive water from the Temba water treatment plant were tested,” it said. “All of these tests have conclusively indicated that there are no microbiological contaminants that point to E Coli or faecal coliforms that can be linked to the cholera outbreak.”

On Monday, Deputy Minister of Water and Sanitation Minister David Mahlobo said the death toll from the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal had now climbed to 15.

News24 reported that tempers flared outside the Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal as angry residents chased Tshwane mayor Cilliers Brink away on Monday.  The City of Tshwane, meanwhile, has urged people in Hammanskraal and surrounding areas “not to use water from taps for drinking purposes”. 

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal infection caused by ingestion of water or food contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, according to the World Health Organisation. 

In the statement, Mchunu’s department said it has extended the scope of an existing technical team of experts in water services and regulations to work on an integrated model to address the current outbreak. 

The department’s technical team will work directly with the national and provincial departments of health and the City of Tshwane “to assist with matters such as water quality investigations from source, taps, stationary tanks in some households and identifying the causes of the disease outbreak”.

The technical team will extend the intensive assessment of the various water supply systems from Magalies and Rand water boards to confirm the drinking quality. The department said it had recently confirmed that the dual water systems supplied by Magalies Water and Rand Water meet the drinking water quality standards, as per the South African National Standards (SANS) 241. 

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu. (PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images)

City to blame 

Mchunu’s department said Hammanskraal has been experiencing “unreliable and poor quality potable water supply” for an extended period, despite the upgrade of the Temba water treatment plant to a capacity of 120 megalitres (million litres) a day. 

“The poor water quality is caused by the failure of the Rooiwal wastewater treatment works to meet the desirable final effluent quality for discharge to the Apies River, which in turn, flows into the Leeukraal Dam.”

This wastewater treatment works is situated upstream of Hammanskraal and has affected the Leeukraal Dam, where the Temba water treatment works abstracts water for treatment and distribution to residents as potable drinking water.

This has, over the years, led to the department instituting a series of directives and compliance requirements against the city, for the city to address the pollution from Rooiwal into the Apies River and Leeukraal Dam. 

“After the city failed to respond to the department’s directives, a legal process was instituted against the city by the department, with the aim of obtaining a court order to force the city to address the failure of the Rooiwal …. This legal process is currently underway and to date, the city has opposed the legal action.” 

The department had directed the city to stop supplying water from the Temba plant to residents of Hammanskraal for human consumption. The city is currently using water tankers to supply potable water to people who were initially supplied by the Temba water treatment plant.

Provincial inquiry

In 2021, the South African Human Rights Commission’s report into the sewage pollution of the City of Tshwane’s rivers and the Roodeplaat Dam recommended, among other things, that the national government should take over the water and sanitation function of the city in terms of the Constitution, the Water Services Act and the National Water Act. 

But the city rejected the commission’s recommendations. The department said it had held discussions with the treasury for funding for the intervention recommended by the commission, but the treasury indicated the city had already been provided with funding for the rehabilitation and upgrading of Rooiwal, through its Urban Settlements Development Grant (USDG) allocations. 

“Consequently, the department is pursuing legal action against the city for a court order to force the City to use its USDG allocations to rehabilitate and upgrade Rooiwal.”

‘We test regularly’

The city said that although the water it supplies in Hammanskraal is “not potable”, it uses 52 water tankers to provide drinkable water to informal settlements three times a week and 40 water trucks to formal areas daily in Region 2. “This is done to ensure that communities have safe drinking water.”

It regularly conducts tests on the quality of water. “Following this outbreak, comprehensive tests will be done on the entire water distribution network.”

“This means that the water that is being distributed via the city’s bulk water distribution network in the area does not have cholera present in it,” the city said, adding that this does not make the water safe to drink because it is “treated heavily with chlorine”. 

Various points where water tankers draw their supply have also been tested, it said. 

It has now widened the scope of its testing, and is interviewing various patients to help trace the source of the contamination.

“The city would like to encourage residents in the affected areas to regularly wash the containers they use to draw water from the water tankers with bleach and to boil water drawn from other sources before drinking it. Communities are also urged not to conduct religious activities, such as baptisms, in rivers or streams,” it said earlier.

Ferrial Adam, the executive manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), said: “We don’t have to be rocket scientists to know that the amount of pollution and the pollution and water issues in Hammanskraal goes way back and this is not a surprise. 

“Someone must be held accountable. What is happening in Hammanskraal is the beginning of what’s going to happen nationally. Look at our municipalities, look at our wastewater treatment works and look at how bad it is in terms of sewage … People must be arrested and held accountable for people’s lives being lost.”

National drinking water quality

In April last year, the department of water and sanitation released its 2022 Blue Drop progress report, which focuses on the clean water provision systems around the country and on the provision of water through reticulation networks, pump stations and water treatment works.

It found that 48% of water supply systems are in the low risk category, 18% are in the medium risk category,  11% are in the high risk category, and  23% are in the critical risk category.

The report revealed that 40% of water supply systems achieved microbiological water quality compliance — which is critical to ensure delivery of safe drinking water that does not present a health risk to consumers — while 23% achieved chemical water quality compliance. 

About 66% of water supply systems have adequate microbiological monitoring compliance and 17% have adequate chemical monitoring compliance. 

“The poor water quality compliance results are of serious concern … as the majority of supply systems present a potential health risk to consumers … Remedial actions include ‘Boil Water’ notices issued in systems with sustained microbiological failures, ‘Water Quality’ advisories issued in systems with sustained chemical failures for chronic health determinants, and alternative water sources provided to communities until the water is safe for human consumption,” the report said.

Gauteng has the largest percentage of systems that comply with microbiological and chemical water quality limits while the Western Cape has the largest percentage of systems that comply with microbiological and chemical monitoring compliance. 

“The large proportion of low risk supply systems in the Gauteng and Western Cape is a positive trend which must be followed by the rest of the country to ensure effective risk management of water services provision for all citizens in the country,” it said.

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