Vaal River pollution is beyond acceptable levels: SAHRC

Commission asks national government to step in urgently

17 February 2021 - 12:46 By TimesLIVE
A resident who lives near the Vaal River takes a picture of the Vaal Dam filled to 100% capacity on February 9 2021. Raw sewage has plagued the Vaal River system for nearly 15 years.
A resident who lives near the Vaal River takes a picture of the Vaal Dam filled to 100% capacity on February 9 2021. Raw sewage has plagued the Vaal River system for nearly 15 years.
Image: ALON SKUY

The Vaal River system, on which approximately 19 million people depend for drinking water and commercial use, is polluted beyond acceptable standards.

This is the finding of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which set up an inquiry into long-running problems in the river system.  

“In the absence of a timely and effective response from the multiple spheres of government, Gauteng’s most vital water resource may very well have been irreparably damaged,” said the commission.

“The cause [of the pollution] is the kilolitres of untreated sewage entering the Vaal because of inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants which have been unable to properly process sewage and other wastewater produced in Emfuleni, and from the city of Johannesburg metropolitan municipality and Midvaal municipality that is also directed towards the wastewater sewage systems situated in the Emfuleni municipality.”

The flow of raw sewerage on public streets, paths and into homes poses a major health hazard to people and is also an obvious violation of their rights to dignity.
SAHRC report

The report stated: “The flow of raw sewerage on public streets, paths and into homes poses a major health hazard to people and is also an obvious violation of their rights to dignity.”

One of the consequences of the pollution is on natural ecosystems directly dependent on the water in and from the Vaal. The population of Yellowfish, peculiar to SA rivers such as the Vaal, are under threat of extinction on account of the change in the balance of river flora and other competing species in the river caused by pollution of the Vaal, said the SAHRC.

There are also direct concerns relating to the negative impact the pollution has had on the economy.

“Evidence was provided and accepted regarding a decrease in tourist and recreational activities on the river due to the severity of the pollution in the Vaal,” said the SAHRC.

Citing instances of wastage of state resources during previous inadequate attempts to fix the problems, the commission said several submissions to its inquiry cited of a lack of skills within the municipality. However, according to private engineers’ submissions, the necessary skills are available in the country, said the report.

“It is the responsibility of the municipality to appoint skilled workers and/or develop capacity for employees to be able to provide the necessary services.

“Theft and vandalism were cited as factors contributing to the ineffectiveness of wastewater management, particularly because of the damage it causes to infrastructure. Theft has caused monetary losses to the municipality, but no estimated cost impact was provided for any financial year relating to the problem, nor were clear containment and preventive plans submitted to plug this additional leak in scarce resources.”

The sewage problem is a crisis and an obvious liability to the state.
SAHRC report

Even recent interventions by the Gauteng government have not yielded successful results, according to the report.

“Given the situation, there is a need for both urgent and comprehensive intervention in and above the current section 139 intervention by the Gauteng province.”

The SAHRC recommends in the short term that the water department or Gauteng co-operative governance department, together with experienced wastewater management specialists and respective Treasury departments, must draw up a cost-effective interim plan to urgently stop or limit the flow of sewage in the streets and homes of people living in the Emfuleni area and also into the Vaal.

The national and provincial governments, for the medium and long term, must conduct a detailed needs assessment for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the Vaal, it advised.

The cabinet should seriously consider taking a decision for the national government to intervene in the running of the Emfuleni local municipality, said the SAHRC.

“The failure to repair and replace the sewerage systems of the municipality is not only a failure to comply with the Water Services Act, it is a failure of many people over many years to properly run the municipality.”

Public servants and municipal administrators and staff who failed to comply with their obligations should be disciplined or dismissed.

“In the absence of stringent consequence management, the public purse is impacted and constitutional duties flouted while people continue to live in deteriorating conditions,” said the commission.

“Any irregular or fruitless and wasteful expenditure [should] be investigated and the relevant parties be made to repay monies to the municipality, and that where applicable the actions be reported to the police.”

There is also a general need to create a precedent that communicates to service providers that they will be held to account.

“The sewage problem is a crisis and an obvious liability to the state.

“The consequences of the pollution could result in a string of legitimate civil claims against the department of water & sanitation for damages and further litigation that could escalate all the way up to the Constitutional Court.”

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