South Africa has to maximise that value extraction and no longer view wastewater as a wasted resource. (Andy Mkosi)
The great overarching tragedy of the deadly cholera outbreak tearing through the community of Hammanskraal is that it was entirely predictable, that the toxic water conditions were well documented, and various arms of the state had on numerous occasions committed to intervene but failed to do so.
Let us be clear of the enormity of this issue — in the capital of Africa’s most advanced economy, people are dying of cholera.
How did we get here?
The problems in Hammanskraal date back over a decade to around 2008 when large quantities of raw sewage began flowing into the Apies River from the Rooiwal Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW), in the Tshwane municipality.
The Rooiwal WWTW discharges its partially or untreated sewage into the Apies River which feeds into Leeukraal Dam, the main water supply to Hammanskraal. The Temba water treatment works, which extracts water from Leeuwkraal Dam, provides water to the Hammanskraal community. The Temba plant does not work effectively either due to a lack of maintenance.
However, following pressure from civil society in 2011, the Department of Water Affairs (DWS) declared the plant and a section of the Apies River a disaster area. This allowed for funding to be released to fix the Rooiwal plant.
In his Tshwane State of the City Address in 2013, now Minister of Electricity Kgosientso Ramokgopa addressed the residents as the mayor of Tshwane, stating: “Much of the equipment has been repaired and the City will keep a close eye on the situation until an extension and refurbishment of Rooiwal WWTW worth R950 million is completed in 2015.”
Money was clearly allocated to the municipality by the national government. It is unclear whether any work was ever undertaken, but if it was, it was obviously never finished as the current crisis indicates.
The long-term effects of this cholera crisis will, at a fundamental level, severely damage the remaining trust that exists between citizens and the state, which has taken on the responsibility to provide clean, potable water to millions of South African households.
Many South Africans now face the reality, perceived or real, that the water coming out of their tap may not be safe to drink. The destruction of trust will only further exacerbate inequality in the country.
It is almost inevitable that exclusive housing estates and well off communities will start exploring how they can secure water security for themselves while marginalised communities will face increased risk of disease.
We can also expect a clamour by some sectors of society calling for water resources to be handed over to private operators, and while there is certainly a space for public-private partnerships in water treatment and reticulation, this alone will not solve the water pollution crisis we are facing at municipalities across the country.
What has consistently been missing from the equation is accountability and consequences for the custodians of our water resources. And this has fuelled the entrenchment of a culture of poor communication from authorities to the public about the real dangers in their water.
In the instance of Hammanskraal, data collected by OUTA clearly indicates that water service authorities which supply that area have repeatedly failed to inform the community of the contamination of their water.
Again in Hammanskraal, community groups and civil society, including OUTA, have used nearly every mechanism at their disposal, including a direct address to the Portfolio Committee on Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation at National Parliament and the South African Human Rights Commission, to have the ticking time bomb, which has exploded in the area and killed 17 people at last count, addressed urgently.
OUTA started working in Hammanskraal in 2018, after receiving complaints from the residents about water quality. We partnered with the Hammanskraal Residents’ Forum (HRF) and Fair and Equitable Society (FES) and then conducted a series of independent laboratory tests. We found that the water was not safe for human consumption.
Emergency measures were taken by the City of Tshwane and potable water was provided to the community.
During July and August 2019, OUTA again tested the Hammanskraal water and again found it unfit for drinking. The tests showed high levels of E.coli and nitrate, which can be a health risk for babies. According to the South African Water Quality Guidelines for Domestic Use, the absorption of nitrate leads to a condition termed methaemoglobinaemia, which can be hazardous in infants under three months of age.
Due to our evidence-based approach, OUTA was invited to meet with the city’s Section 79 utility services oversight committee and asked to help them find a solution, to which we provided input.
The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) was by this stage also involved.
On 10 September 2019, the Hammanskraal residents’ forum attended a meeting of Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. The forum’s chairperson, Tumelo Koitheng, addressed the committee about the Hammanskraal situation.
The committee directed deputy minister David Mahlobo to intervene and assist, but to date it is unclear whether any action has been taken.
It is ironic that Mahlobo, who clearly did not act then, is now the deputy minister of water and sanitation and is directly involved in the crisis management of the outbreak.
At about this time, OUTA, a supporter-funded civil activism organisation, in agreement with the Hammanskraal community, deemed it reasonable to step back and allow the authorities to take the lead.
In hindsight this was a mistake.
We trusted that the City of Tshwane with the support from the national government, would repair and upgrade the Rooiwal WWTW and the Temba water treatment works, and rehabilitate the Apies River to improve the quality of water in Hammanskraal.
Needless to say, this did not happen.
State capture at the department of water and sanitation under Nomvula Mokonyane’s reign, clearly contributed. This was exacerbated through multi-administration municipal failures at the City of Tshwane.
And despite indisputable evidence that the area’s water was still being regularly contaminated, and despite regular official tests proving the contamination, the various spheres of government chose to disengage with the community and failed to communicate the obvious health risks posed.
The problems in Hammanskraal are similar to those experienced in Emfuleni municipality with the sewage pollution of the Vaal River and in eThekwini municipality where most major rivers are considered toxic.
These are just the headline incidents. In the majority of municipalities across the country, waste water treatment works are broken and spill raw sewage into our rivers and dams, which are the common sources of drinking water.
This is the real ticking time bomb.
National, provincial and local government has known about Hammanskraal for over a decade. It is evident that a lack of political accountability, planning and maintenance as well as corruption lie at the heart of the issue.
And there is probably no other issue that binds South Africans more than access to potable water. Water is the true shared resource and if we do not act with a single-mindedness in securing these resources both now and for the future, we are sabotaging the next generation.
We have a duty to act. And many are.
There are multiple civil society organisations across the country fighting for our dams, rivers or the oceans.
OUTA, through its WaterCAN project, has created a unique and cost effective method to help empower communities to test drinking and river water while Hennops Revival in Gauteng has, through volunteer funding, empowered local communities to clean the Hennops River.
The Alexandra Water Warriors clean up the river weekly and have about 300 volunteers.
In Milnerton, Cape Town, there are committed environmentalists who are guarding against further pollution of the Milnerton lagoon while in Durban an organisation called Adopt-A-River is running extensive river clean-up campaigns.
At a national level, the South African Water Caucus is a grassroots water network that campaigns on access to water and fights water pollution.
There are many, many more people doing exceptional work. It is this type of activism and community involvement that will ultimately lead to change. And we cannot stop applying the pressure. History has shown us that we cannot rely on good faith alone that the government will do the right thing.
A failure to act by all roleplayers is simply not an option, otherwise the bomb will truly explode.
Dr Ferrial Adam is the executive manager of WaterCAN, a project of OUTA focused on water-related issues.
Julius Kleynhans is the executive manager of OUTA’s Social Innovation Division which focuses on finding solutions for community organisations to become more effective and sustainable.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.
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