Is this a case of déjà pooh?

Not only is the water crisis at a peak in the country, but it seems that the water sources that we do have, are under threat – from raw sewage – and this is not the first time…

No matter how we look at it, South Africa’s water options are drying up and the water we have available needs to be kept clean, from source to tap.

The country has aging municipal sewage networks that are in dire threat of collapsing completely and treatment plants are running full tilt to deal with the growing challenge of sewage as they try to keep pace with the growing human tide.

Mail & Guardian report cites that of the 824 treatment plants, ‘maybe only 60 release clean water’. The weekly paper says rivers throughout the country are under threat of contamination from raw or partially treated sewage flows.

This is not the first time that sewage has been found in Gauteng’s drinking water.

No metropole or town is immune to this threat, including big metros such as Johannesburg to towns such as Deneysville, on the banks of the picturesque Vaal.

Holding 1 billion m³ of water, the Vaal dam supplies most of Gauteng’s drinking water and serves as a catchment for rivers in Gauteng, the Free State, North West and Mpumalanga – to which it supplies irrigation water.

Back in 2015 the Mail & Guardian (M&G) also covered this foul subject when Deneysville was flooded by streams of human waste.

Inefficiencies are high when it comes to monitoring water purity and, to blame for this instance of pollution, were the town’s two sewerage pumping stations and the wastewater works that should have cleaned that waste.

The problem here is that the system was overwhelmed by a growing population. It was built for a town of 4 000 people and now four times that number live in the area.

Residents of townships near the Vaal gingerly negotiate their daily route through raw sewage. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi, M&G)RESIDENTS OF TOWNSHIPS NEAR THE VAAL GINGERLY NEGOTIATE THEIR DAILY ROUTE THROUGH RAW SEWAGE. (PHOTOS: OUPA NKOSI, M&G)

The 2012 Green Drop report into the treatment works states they were running at 200% capacity, while a 2014 water affairs inspection found ‘the plant design capacity is 2.59Mℓ a day but it is operating at almost 100% over capacity’.

Efficacy doesn’t appear to be high on the agenda as reported by M&G which, over the course of the past six years, visited 36 treatment plans around South Africa.

A noteworthy instance in northern Limpopo saw operators using ‘a handbook with a third of its pages missing’ to gauge the amount of chlorine and lime to add to their treatment process, resulting in ‘guesswork’.

The paper even went as far to say that the evidence is so damning ‘it would enable people to sue the government’, while the report from 2013 states that less than 10% of the country’s 824 plants were releasing clean water. This means that 50 000ℓ of untreated sewage is released every second.

According to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), 60% of the country’s water bodies hold water that is ‘so rich in nutrients from sewage that it is green and hyacinths cover the surface’. These ‘green’ dams also include Hartbeespoort and Bronkhorstpruit in Gauteng.

The Vaal Dam is choked with algae. Plants, like this one in Giyani, Limpopo, are often to blame for the mess. Credit: Anthony Schultz & Delwyn Verasamy, M&GTHE VAAL DAM IS CHOKED WITH ALGAE. PLANTS, LIKE THIS ONE IN GIYANI, LIMPOPO, ARE OFTEN TO BLAME FOR THE MESS. CREDIT: ANTHONY SCHULTZ & DELWYN VERASAMY, M&G

If fault is to be laid anywhere, it is directly at the door of the government, where maintenance budgets have been chopped, despite global best practice for a municipality is to spend 15% of the value of a plant annually on maintenance.

However, according to an article in the M&G ‘… maintenance budgets are often where corruption hits hardest. Delmas in Mpumalanga, where raw sewage from two wastewater treatment plants is making people down river ill, is a good example.’

The treasury says half of the municipality’s spending is ‘fruitless and wasteful’ with only 1% spent on maintenance.

The results of this could be devastating as reported in 2009 in a special edition of the South African Medical Journal. It noted that 85% of the country’s sewage infrastructure is ‘dilapidated’ which could lead to an ‘epidemiological nightmare’.

With one of the world’s highest rates of child mortality under the age of five – of which about 10% are from diarrhoea – the journal warned of the effects of E. coli and other sewage-related pollutants in a population with a high prevalence of HIV.

There is little doubt that the South African government needs to focus on water infrastructure spend, whether it be on building new infrastructure or maintaining current aging structures.
Either that, or face the dire consequences of neglect, of both its infrastructure and of its people.

50 000ℓ of untreated sewage is released every second. credit: Gallo50 000ℓ OF UNTREATED SEWAGE IS RELEASED EVERY SECOND. CREDIT: GALLO

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