/ 26 May 2023

Hammanskraal cholera: Time for ‘bullshitting’ is over, says mayor

Hammanskraal Water 4
With dysfunctional sewage plants and failing water treatment plants such as Temba (above) South Africa has the perfect conditions for diseases such as cholera to thrive. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The water crisis in cholera-hit Hammanskraal has “been a long line of failures and excuses”, according to Tshwane executive mayor, Cilliers Brink.

“Trying to cover things up, paper it over or deny that mistakes were made, not just by the ANC but also by the coalition government would be a futile exercise,” he told the Mail & Guardian on Thursday. “I really do hope we can find a solution.”

Twenty-one people have died as a result of the outbreak in the past week, while one person has died in the Free State from the acute diarrhoeal infection, which is caused by ingesting contaminated water or food.

On Wednesday, Brink said the City of Tshwane will allocate R450 million over the next three years to upgrade the dysfunctional Rooiwal wastewater treatment plant in Pretoria. 

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu this week blamed the unreliable and poor quality water in Hammanskraal on the failure of Rooiwal to meet the desirable final effluent quality for discharge to the Apies River, which, in turn, flows into the Leeukraal Dam. 

“The 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,” he said.

R2.5 billion price tag

Rooiwal’s refurbishment requires R2.5 billion, which is the city’s entire capital budget, Brink said. It has now allocated R150 million a year for the next three years for upgrades to the plant. 

“That is the maximum allocation within existing resources that we can make. I’ve made it clear that even that allocation is not going to be enough to complete all of the work that needs to be done.”

The plant is organically and hydraulically overloaded. “Even as far back as 2004, there were warnings to the city that the plant was reaching its capacity. In 2008, another such warning was made and in 2011, environmental contravention notices were issued to the city. And, the more the population of Hammanskraal has grown and the more the infrastructure has degraded, the more expensive this project has become.”

The budget allocation will need to be combined with either a project loan from a funding institution like the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) or in partnership with the department of water and sanitation. “But by itself, it’s not sufficient,” Brink said.

Last year, a forensic report by the city exposed how a R295 million tender was awarded to two companies belonging to state capture-implicated Edwin Sodi for the upgrade and refurbishment of Rooiwal, but neither had any experience. The contract was cancelled in August and Brink said the disciplinary process against the officials involved is “well-underway”. 

“As a politician, I can’t interfere … to make sure you fire these people. You’ve got to reach a point where you say if the system fails us again … well, these folks have presided over a number of irregular things, is it really worth our while to have them around at all?”

Improving plant’s performance

Sodi’s group did 60% of the work for phase one of Rooiwal’s refurbishment.

“That can easily be completed within the following financial year. But phase two of that project is crucial and that is valued at R2.5 billion, which is the entirety of the city’s capital budget.

“The R450 million over three years is much more than has ever been set aside for this but it’s still not enough, so those crucial engagements with DBSA, with potentially other lending institutions, with the department [of water and sanitation] … are going to be crucial.”

As much as capital upgrades at Rooiwal are important, operationally, for example, there are two belt presses, which are part of the processing of the sludge, that have been delivered but haven’t been installed because of operational budgets being depleted.

“I’ve said to the city manager, just find any way possible, obviously without incurring irregular expenditure, to have those things installed because even those operational upgrades will improve the performance of the plant and the quality of the effluent that is then treated at the Temba purification plant.”

Empty promises

On Monday, angry residents chased Brink from the Jubilee District Hospital in Hammanskraal, where cholera patients are being treated. 

Speaking about the timeline for getting potable water into the area’s taps, Brink said: “So many promises have been made about this issue over the years and as much as this recent tragedy has again focused our attention on those issues, the quality of the water, but I must stress that we haven’t received any tests that the actual water supply has been contaminated so the taps from Temba are not the source of the cholera …. 

“But it’s again focused the attention of everyone on the fact that this thing has been going on for years. It’s not 10 years, if you speak to people in Hammanskraal, they will tell you it’s been a long time that water there has been an issue.” 

He did not want to make “wild promises” that were not within his control to deliver. “But what is clear to me is that plodding along the way we have up to this point is not going to work. We have to do things differently. I’ll be candid, I don’t trust Tshwane’s supply chain management system, and I’ve said this openly to the city manager. 

“I think that whatever solution we devise, we must try and bring in outside partners, if only to serve as a check on the city’s own supply chain management system, so perhaps a turn-key project that is not managed entirely by the city itself.”

There are short-term things that can be done to improve the quality of the effluent that reaches the Temba purification plant. “Because what happens at Temba is they put so much chlorine in the water, that’s what renders it effectively unsuitable for drinking and cooking.”

Brink has a “measure of distrust” in the city’s capacity to come up with solutions. “The time for bullshitting is over,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity, the resources, the expertise to make any of these decisions by ourselves and it would be great if there are experts in the field who can come to the table and say ‘there are interim solutions, why are you doing the big work, and the big upgrades”.

No cholera in water supply

On whether Rooiwal was a potential source behind the cholera outbreak, Brink said that before any test results came back, “people were saying that it is because of Rooiwal, that the water system is contaminated. And the tests were done on the Saturday, the cholera was confirmed on the Sunday. The Saturday tests, which came in on Monday, found it to be negative. We’re awaiting further test results.”

Routine water testing for E Coli, cholera and typhoid is done once a month on natural water sources by the city’s environmental health teams.

“Obviously, immediately when this thing broke, we said ‘okay, where are the routine tests? Health came back to us and said none of the routine tests that were done prior — and the last routine tests was 3 May — indicated that there was cholera in the water supply at the various points that they tested.”

Water testing

Mchunu said his department had been continuously carrying out water quality tests at the Temba plant and at water distribution points in Hammanskraal. “The latest tests indicate that the drinking water quality from the Temba water treatment works does not meet minimum drinking water quality. The water quality challenges are therefore, in central Hammanskraal, from water supplied by the city.”

Ferrial Adam, the executive manager of WaterCAN, an Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) project focused on water-related issues, has now written to the Gauteng department of water and sanitation, urgently asking for the results of the department’s tests conducted since January 2023 in Hammanskraal, and that of the Temba treatment works. 

She requested the results of the city’s tests since January in Hammanskraal for water supplied by water tankers and the Temba plant. 

She referred to the city’s media statement issued on Monday, in which it said it had tested for E coli and faecal coliforms and there was “none, therefore there was no cholera. I thought that is a stupid conclusion because, yes, cholera is associated with sewage pollution, but it isn’t if there’s E coli, then there’s cholera, or if there’s no E coli, then there’s no cholera. I felt that they needed to do the proper cholera tests, which I think they have done”. 

The city had to do monthly testing and weekly microbiological tests. “I’d like to see what tests they’ve been conducting and there’s a discrepancy between the minister’s comments and the city’s comments. Who’s lying? Maybe nobody is lying, maybe at the time of testing this happened, but let’s speak to each other. You’re completely confusing the public and growing the mistrust that exists around tap water.”

WaterCAN had commissioned its own water testing and would try to test water tankers and two taps in Hammanskraal. “Cholera does spread pretty fast, there’s a lot of people saying it’s not the water. That is a plausible argument but I’m not convinced by it because I don’t think the government reacted fast enough to let us know to find the source. 

“Some people are saying there’s no point in finding the source, I understand and accept that, but that doesn’t mean I can say it was not the water. It could have been a tap, a tanker, bucket water from the river, it could be food, it could be that someone came in and is going to be transmitting it,” she said.

“It could be all of that. There is a problem in that area with the wastewater treatment works, we know that the sewage is flowing there, we know that the water is not potable …. We don’t know how the cholera came, but it has the potential [to do so].”