WATCH | Taking a tour of Gauteng’s dangerous drainage system

Even the most polluted river begins in purity somewhere. Sean Christie joins artists and engineers in tunnels under Joburg, looking for the start of the Jukskei

07 February 2021 - 00:00 By Sean Christie
Visual artist Hannelie Coetzee, in the Jukskei tunnel, hopes that finding the source of the Jukskei will bolster the case for its conservation.
Visual artist Hannelie Coetzee, in the Jukskei tunnel, hopes that finding the source of the Jukskei will bolster the case for its conservation.
Image: Sean Christie

André Nel parked his bakkie under the plane trees outside the Ellis Park admin block, and without self-consciousness (but with some pain, on account of an old gunshot injury) pulled on orange coveralls with reflective knee stripes.

“You were all wondering if I’d pitch,” he called out with a grin, acknowledging the many previous arrangements that had been cancelled at the last minute. About a year before, Nel, a senior manager at the Johannesburg Roads Agency (JRA), had offered to lead a small group on an expedition beneath the city, in the storm-water system.

He looked as happy as anyone that it had come together, and took obvious delight in outlining the challenges we could expect to face, which included walking in up to 300mm of fast-flowing sewage, exposure to toxic gases, and possible encounters with sewage miners: individuals who purposely block sewage pipes, and then sift the standing sludge for jewellery, cellphones, banknotes — “anything that might accidentally go into a toilet”.

As a safety measure, Nel had requested the support of two Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD) officers, and a cruiser. He had also asked a JRA team to assist with the opening and shutting of manholes. On arrival at the first culvert, the largest of the crew members, packing a paunch he blamed on the Covid-19 lockdown, placed the head of his pickaxe on the metal cover, and paused to address the group.

Investigating the groundwater pumping station below the Standard Bank Arena.
Investigating the groundwater pumping station below the Standard Bank Arena.
Image: Sean Christie

“Last time we opened here we disturbed the cockroaches something terrible,” he said, and flipped the heavy lid with a powerful levering motion. Roaches on the underside began streaming down the road. A JMPD officer drew his gun and mock-fired; another chased a single insect down the road with his phone camera.

“Who will be first underground?” Nel asked. Hannelie Coetzee, the celebrated visual artist, stepped forward. She had joined the expedition in the very specific hope that we might find the source of the Jukskei River — the original source of Johannesburg’s drinking water — which rises beneath an inner city suburb of Johannesburg and travels for a kilometre or so in the storm-water system before emerging above ground in a cut-stone canal at the foot of Bez Valley.

Already, at this daylight point, the water is foul — you can smell its faecal odour from Coetzee’s studio in the adjacent Victoria Yards complex. In 2017, Coetzee and conservationist Romy Stander founded a river regeneration organisation called Water for the Future, choosing the headwaters of the 50km-long Jukskei as their initial focus.

To bring the pollution issue into sharper focus, Water for the Future had asked University of Johannesburg researcher Dr Kousar Banu Hoorzook to test the water quality at the daylight point. According to Coetzee, Hoorzook’s samples were teeming with life, just not the sort of life you want to find in a river.

Sean Christie takes the plunge and finds out what our drains really look (and smell) like, and what hazards they pose to our health.

“She identified 35 different types of bacteria, mostly dangerous,” she had explained earlier, while hauling on protective gear. The idea that there might still be an unadulterated section of the Jukskei somewhere under the city was dear to Coetzee.

“If we can find that place of relative purity, we can make a real case for the protection of the source.” Nel’s colleague Puthi Letsaba was next down the manhole chimney, followed by Stuart Dunsmore, a former department of water affairs engineer with a gift for explaining the language and systems of water management. He had been appointed by the City of Johannesburg to produce a catchment management framework for the Upper Jukskei, and was keen to get a first-hand look at the flow in the storm-water drains.

In an e-mail, he described how the city’s storm-water drains carry a cocktail of sewage, water from burst pipes, ground water, and, in the rainy seasons, storm water. The broad objective of his research, he wrote, “is to establish what we have in the catchment that is of value, because once we know this, we can decide whether to make use of the resource, and how.” Dunsmore and Coetzee are optimists. They believe that the water resource in urban catchments — whether ground water, storm water or sewage — can be far better managed, in ways that will benefit the local community. Nel, with his boots mired in real-world problems, is more of a sceptic.

“The big problem is the system’s age,” he declared, once we were all inside the tunnel. “We have a century-old system that was only built to last 50 years. The storm-water drains are eroded, the sewerage pipes are degraded, and because the one system sits directly above the other, constituting what is known as a superimposed system, you get sewage entering the storm-water drains, and vice versa.”

Our head-torch beams sabered the darkness as we progressed single file, boots on both sides of the invert. “The trick is to take small steps,” said Letsaba. We were gliding underground towards Hillbrow. Cockroaches constellated where large concrete blocks had been prised out (for what reason Nel could not say) exposing the rebar, which aimed rust-sharpened points at our bodies. Atop a metal plate in the tunnel floor an organic object — a ball of fat? an apple core? — sparkled white with mycelium.

“The plates function like valves for the 250mm sewage pipe below, popping upwards under high pressure to release sewage into the storm-water tunnel. When this happens the river ultimately catches whatever leaks out,” said Nel. The original designers, Nel explained, could not have envisaged the city’s transition, starting in the 1980s, from commercial hub to dormitory for hundreds of thousands of the region’s poor.

“The deteriorating system simply cannot handle all the shit, and so it spills out into the streets, or into building basements, and mostly ends up in the rivers via the storm-water drains,” he said. “I am surprised that there isn’t more sewage in here,” said Dunsmore.

“Me too,” said Nel, though we soon heard rushing water, distinct from the sound of cars on Sivewright Avenue above. The sound became louder as we made a sharp right turn. Nel looked a little concerned. “That’s a lot of flow.” Heavy rains over the Upper Jukskei catchment in summer produce lethal flash floods. The day had been cloudless, though. We turned again, and found our way blocked by a hip-high wall. On the other side of it a torrent of stinking water plunged into darkness. “A weir,” said Nel.

“Johannesburg Water must have built it to force spilt waste water from Hillbrow back into the sewage system.” Dunsmore winced. “Doing this really messes with the biological process in the waste-water treatment plant, especially after highveld thunderstorms, when the storm water surges. How much of it is ground water, do you think?” Dunsmore asked Nel. “Hardly any.”In 2018, hydrologist Simon Lorentz subjected samples of Upper Jukskei River water to isotopic analysis, and found that the base flow of the Jukskei — the water running in the canal between rainfall events — has the same isotopic signature as the water supplied to the city by the Rand Water utility.

Water rushes through a Jukskei tunnel.
Water rushes through a Jukskei tunnel.
Image: Sean Christie

In other words, it is probable that most of the Jukskei’s flow at this early stage is water that has been piped hundreds of kilometres only to leak out of Joburg pipes — the spring water altogether subsumed by foreign water molecules. Having reached a dead-end in the tunnel we retraced our steps, and surfaced. “Now we are going to find you a real river,” Nel said to Coetzee, leading us down a slope towards the Rea Vaya Rapid Transit station alongside the Joburg Cricket Club. The Jukskei spring was lost beneath buildings and tarmac a long time ago, but Nel knew of a single pipe in a certain storm-water drain, from which a steady flow of clear water decants all year round.

In the next hour, he shook his head above a dozen manhole covers the JRA team had opened. “Nope, sewer … shallow culvert … wrong storm-water drain,” he grumbled, until eventually he found what he was looking for. The going was tougher in this tunnel: the ceiling was lower, the flow was much stronger, and we were continually stepping in potholes — places where the concrete had eroded right the way through to the soil below. This, explained Nel, is how sinkholes develop.

“First the silicone between the concrete segments disappears, and over time the water widens the gaps and creates holes that can branch out from beneath the tunnel, growing until at some point there might be nothing beneath an adjacent building or road but air, and the surface caves in,” he said.

“Will this tunnel be worked on before it is too late?” I asked. Letsaba and Nel turned to each other, their headlamps fusing in one conspiratorial beam. Much later I learnt that the work of the municipality’s engineering divisions is governed by two acronyms: opex (operational expenditure — the ongoing cost for running a system), and capex (capital expenditure — the cost of developing non-consumable parts for the system). Maintenance of the storm-water drains falls under opex, but this budget is chronically constrained. “Salaries alone wipe out a huge percentage of the opex budget, leaving very little behind for maintenance,” a former city council member explained.

“It is essentially political,” the former bureaucrat said. “Maintenance is invisible; nobody sees it happening, whereas costly, large-scale rehabilitation projects — capex projects — are highly visible. Politicians can point at big holes in the ground and say, ‘See, we are at work here’.” The tunnel we were in continued to narrow, and our bodies were forced low by crisscrossing pipes strewn with litter. A single rat stalked off into a side chamber. A condom, blown up like a balloon, floated by. Once again, the sound of rushing water could be heard.

“The Jukskei,” said Nel. From the lip of the pipe, water dropped at a rate of about a litre per second, roughly equal to the spill of water from a residential gutter pipe during a highveld storm. Still, the water looked and smelt clean. Coetzee snapped pictures while Dunsmore retrieved two glass cylinders from his bag, filling one with water from the pipe, and the other from the milky flow into which the pipe water spilt. Nel struggled on the way back. Clearly the crouch-walk was taking a toll on his injured leg.

“It happened in 2015,” he confided. “I was asleep in a tent, and woke with an armed person on top of me. We struggled, the gun went off. In the first year I doubted I would walk again, let alone work. You remember me in those days, Stuart,” Nel said to Dunsmore.

“I remember the look in your eyes. It scared me,” said Dunsmore. “That’s why we are down here right now,” Nel continued. “If I have learnt one thing, it’s that you should not put off doing the things you want to do, especially if it might make a small positive difference.”Two weeks later, Dunsmore e-mailed our group the water analysis report. The storm drain sample was bad — E.coli at over 150 counts per 100ml, but, incredibly, no E.coli had been detected in the pipe flow.

“Time to reopen the water bottling plant (no jokes!),” wrote Dunsmore. I have little doubt this news caused an outbreak of private smiles, and perhaps an audible whoop from Coetzee. And who knows, perhaps in future companies in the inner city will place orders for Jukskei Water, bottled in darkness at the source of the Limpopo River, somewhere beneath Doornfontein.

LURKING IN THE WATER

Ninety-nine percent of samples taken from the upper river in 2018contained diarrhoeagenic E. coli pathotypes that can cause gastroenteritis and meningitis, and Citrobacter braakii, a known cause of sepsis and meningitis leading to central nervous system abscesses in neonates and young infants. Raoultella planticolawas also found in 99% of samples.

An emerging hospital-acquired infection, it is particularly associated with invasive procedures. The analysis also found levels of lithium and nickel above the South African irrigation water quality guideline.

The researchers concluded that Jukskei water “is a potential threat to people who downstream use this water as a source of drinking and domestic use”.

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