/ 14 April 2024

Health hazards plague Emfuleni townships

Img Phuthullaschool
In Boipatong, Phuthulla Primary School has struggled for at least eight years with the flow of sewage from broken pipes into the school yard when it rains. Photo supplied

The rubbish tips and contaminated waterways in the townships of Emfuleni local municipality in southern Gauteng — caused by broken wastewater infrastructure and refuse removal services — are visible to the naked eye. 

The invisible effect of it on residents’ health is a more serious, potentially devastating long-term problem. 

In Boipatong, Phuthulla Primary School has struggled for at least eight years with the flow of sewage from broken pipes into the school yard when it rains, creating lakes around the classroom buildings and turning the outdoor play areas into a health hazard.

A senior office-bearer at the school, who did not want to be named, says the schoolchildren often suffer from skin rashes and stomach problems. 

“Late last year we had to send all of them home,” he said, adding that as a result many parents have removed their children from the school. 

Complaints about alarming levels of air pollution caused by industry (mostly steel production) and coal mining, as well as commercial, and agricultural land use, have echoed for years throughout Emfuleni. 

The high incidence of asthma in the townships of Evaton, Sebokeng, Sharpeville, Boipatong, Bophelong and Tshepiso — all within the municipality — is well documented, with waterborne diseases an added burden caused by the frequent contamination of the municipality’s water sources. 

In Jabulile Sindane’s 2022 thesis, titled The Impacts of Water Quality on the Residential Areas of Emfuleni Local Municipality: A Case Study of Rietspruit River Catchment, most of the 260 respondents in the study complained of “skin rashes and diarrhoea developed by children who make contact with the untreated sewage when playing on the streets”. 

Sindane went on to publish a peer-reviewed journal article on the subject in 2023, which confirmed the severity of socio-economic strain that these infrastructural issues have had on residents and businesses alike.

Sewage-contaminated water contains E. coli and salmonella bacteria, the common causes of diarrhoea and stomach cramps, symptoms that can be particularly hazardous for children and older people who may experience dehydration and other complications.

Respondents also complained that air pollution “worsened some of their health conditions such as asthma”, an issue raised during a visit by Good Governance Africa, a research and advocacy nonprofit, to Phuthulla Primary School. 

“Some of the children are suffering from breathing problems,” said the senior school official.

The air quality in this area is so poor it occasionally hits headlines. On 12 July 2023, Bloomberg’s DataDash cited Vereeniging as having the worst air quality in the world. The publication used data from OpenAQ that measured 46.13 micrograms per cubic metres (g/m3) of fine particulate matter measuring 2.5mm in diameter or less. 

Fine particulates can get deep into the lungs and even the bloodstream. Extensive global research has found that over the long term, exposure to air pollution can lead to heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses such as asthma and emphysema.

When it comes to exposure to water pollution — through drinking, bathing or water-based cooking — the harmful substances, which include heavy metals, chemicals and bacteria, can lead to cancer, neurological disorders, reproductive problems and developmental abnormalities.

The imperative to tackle air and water pollution in Emfuleni, therefore, cannot be overstated. 

Last July, the Gauteng high court ordered several government ministers and the Gauteng premier to stop the sewage pollution of the Vaal River and its tributaries, finding that “the discharge of raw or inadequately treated sewage from Emfuleni’s municipal wastewater care and management system into the Rietspruit River/Klip River/Vaal River and the Vaal River Catchment Areas” was in contravention of the National Environmental Management Act and the National Water Act. 

Yet little has been done. In Good Governance Africa’s 2024 Governance Performance Index, Emfuleni scored last of the six municipalities in Gauteng. For secondary cities across the country, it ranked 17th of a total of 19. 

On 26 February this year, nine ward councillors in the area wrote a letter to the Gauteng premier, Panyaza Lesufi, pointing out that household refuse removal had “finally broken down completely with some suburbs reportedly having been last serviced more than eight weeks ago”. 

“The reason given by the municipality to councillors and residents alike … is the unavailability of working contractors needed to facilitate the refuse collections. This in spite of the fact that Gauteng Province gave the municipality nine new compactors [machines used to reduce the size of waste material] as recently as the 2021/2022 financial year,” the letter stated. 

Only a week ago, on 1 April, the municipality warned residents that water in some parts of the Vaal area, including Sebokeng Zone 7, Palm Springs, Beverley Hills, Lakeside and Evaton, had been contaminated as a result of a collapsed sewer pipeline. 

Water tankers were deployed while technicians fixed the problem. 

“You’d know that some of our infrastructure is very old and sometimes the conditions become poor and it breaks and gets dilapidated,” said Emfuleni municipality’s chief director, Madoda Besani. 

“So what happens is that because of this you’d find sewage that’s leaking in various parts and ponds around the water network, and if it’s broken, the sewage finds its way inside the network.”

This piecemeal crisis management approach continues to define Emfuleni local municipality’s response to the situation, in no small part because of the instability caused by an unwieldy coalition government that has resulted in conflicts and problems in decision-making, service delivery and budget allocation. 

The council also faces overwhelming debt — at close to R9  billion owed to Eskom and Rand Water for services, according to the council’s 2022-23 audit report.

“The legacy debt to Eskom and Rand Water currently makes the Emfuleni municipality unworkable on its own,” says Democratic Alliance MP Dennis Ryder. 

“The only way to redress this disaster is good governance, appropriately funded, with a seven- to 10-year consistent executive focused on fixing it with all three spheres of government on board.”

Given its clear governance deficit, Good Governance Africa hopes to make Emfuleni municipality a core focus of its work in South Africa for the next few years and contribute to its stabilisation.

The immediate and long-term health and environmental impacts of pollution aside, consistently ignoring urgent societal needs leads to democratic backsliding, warns Good Governance Africa’s senior data analyst Pranish Desai.

“If problems such as those visible at Phuthulla Primary School are not effectively addressed with sufficient haste, then apathy and disillusionment can consolidate into something far more menacing: the destabilisation of our hard-won democracy and in its place, a ripe environment for unrest,” he says.

Requests for comment from the Gauteng department of education on conditions at Phuthulla Primary School were unsuccessful by the time of going to print.

Helen Grange is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s monthly Africa in Fact Insights magazine. In this election year, the GGA is running a voter awareness campaign in its AiF Quarterly, the monthly AIF Insights, and on its website and in the Mail & Guardian. An entire edition of AIF in the third quarter will focus on disinformation and how to combat it, given the bumper crop of elections on the continent.