Sewage pushes E.coli levels in Vaal to dangerous levels, environmental group says

18 October 2019 - 15:54 By ERNEST MABUZA
Raw sewage and industrial pollutants flow into parts of the Vaal River. Stock image.
Raw sewage and industrial pollutants flow into parts of the Vaal River. Stock image.
Image: inus12345 / 123RF Stock Photo

Sewage pouring into the Vaal River system is having a major ecological impact and creating a heath risk - and resulting in dangerously high E.coli levels.

Environmental organisation Save the Vaal Environment was commenting on an announcement made by the human settlements, water and sanitation department on Wednesday that it had sourced expertise from the Ekurhuleni waste water treatment works (Erwat) to address the blocked pipes and broken pumps at the Sebokeng waste water treatment works.

The treatment works previously received 100 megalitres of wastewater a day, but currently gets 20 megalitres.

This means that the plant is not fully operational and the remaining 80 megalitres of sewage is flowing into the streets, the veld and the Vaal River.

The department said on Wednesday Erwat had advertised two tenders which will mainly focus on refurbishing the ageing waster treatment works to prevent the ongoing sewage spillages into the Vaal.

Save the Vaal Environment spokesperson Maureen Stewart said on Friday that sewage pollution was affecting a number of areas, including Vereeniging and Evaton.

"In addition, the Rietspruit (a tributary of the Vaal), is receiving most of the raw sewage which should have been treated at the Sebokeng plant, and the Rietspruit treatment plant is not operating properly with its effluent not meeting required standards, thus adding to sewage pollution," Stewart said.

Stewart said the end result was an E.coli count running into millions of parts per 100ml of water at the mouth of the Rietspruit, where it enters the Vaal. An E.coli count of 400 parts per 100ml of water is considered a health risk.

Stewart said pollution of the Vaal River from the Emfuleni local council’s wastewater treatment system had been going on for 15 years.

"It became a crisis in late 2017 when the Emfuleni waste treatment system (comprising of 2,000km of pipes, 44 pump stations and three waste water treatment plants) collapsed.

"This resulted in massive pollution of the Vaal River, which is ongoing. It is a pity that the department did not react earlier to prevent this crisis, despite considerable pressure from Save The Vaal," Stewart said.

Stewart said finance minister Tito Mboweni had announced in October last year - when the defence force was deployed to help in cleaning the Vaal River system - that about  R800m would be available to stop the pollution of the Vaal River.

She said it was difficult to know how much had been committed to the project.

In April, former minister Gugile Nkwinti said R371m had been allocated for the project. On Wednesday, the department said the figure was R176m.

"So many rand figures are bandied about that it’s difficult to know what is factual. It was Save’s understanding that R341m was to be made available in the 2019/2020 financial year. The department’s press statement now talks about R176m to 'completely tackle the pollution problem'," Stewart said.

She said the department’s latest intervention did not mention completion dates for the repairs.

"So it does not give any hope for an early resolution of the pollution crisis in the Vaal River," Stewart said.