“The situation has reached crisis point at the Vaal with negative impacts on the economy and job creation”, according to Save the Vaal Environment (Save), a local NGO that works to protect the blighted river, and a team of water researchers at a recent meeting. “The poorest communities are the most vulnerable, especially in regard to health risks”.
Further court action would now be launched against Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane and other responsible ministers and departments next year, said Save.
“The minister of water and sanitation needs to accept responsibility and accountability for water quality in the Vaal River system and ensure her department does its job in ensuring that polluters who contravene legislation are punished.
“The minister alss needs to urgently find the funds to resolve the issue of sewage pollution by going ahead with her 2015 plan of the Sedibeng regional sewage system, which has not gone beyond the drawing board.”
For the past 20 years, Save had worked to pressurise local councils and the department to prevent pollution, said its chairperson, Malcolm Plant. “Our interaction has included 55 successful court orders against the Emfuleni local council and one court order against the Ngwathe local council to prevent sewage pollution from their wastewater systems.
“This pressure has resulted in a few projects to alleviate the situation. However, the steps taken by the authorities are inadequate and the Vaal River system is in crisis. “Structural work needs to start immediately “if we are to save the Vaal River from complete degradation” and knock-on effects on health and the local economy.
“The next step must be a legal strategy to compel the authorities to take accountability and responsibility to protect this important raw water source.” The impact of a polluted Vaal River was widespread, said Mariette Liefferink, of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment. “The Vaal River system supplies water to 60% of the economy and 45% of South Africa’s population.”
The main causes of pollution are the neutralised but highly saline acid mine drainage effluent being pumped into the river and raw or partially treated sewage “from the often non-compliant wastewater treatment systems of local municipalities”, she said. Compliance monitoring and enforcement are minimal, said Save. “Little action is taken against non-compliant local councils. Raw or partially treated sewage is a major pollutant which creates serious health risks.
“E-coli counts are an indicator of sewage. Symptoms of contact with e-coli-polluted water include skin irritations, infections and intestinal disorders. E-coli counts of 200 – 400 per 100ml of water represent a significant risk for gastrointestinal disorders. E-coli counts more than 400 per 100 ml represent a high risk for gastrointestinal disorders.
“Rand Water’s analysis results confirm unacceptable levels of e-coli. In Vereeniging where the Klip River joins the Vaal, E.coli counts of 6 570 per 100 ml were measured on November 1, declining to 411 counts on November 8. “At the sampling site where the Rietspruit joins Loch Vaal, 57 940 counts per 100 ml were recorded on November 1. This reduce o 241 900 counts per 100 ml on November 8. These are two major pollution hot spots.”
Stanley Gaba, of the Emfuleni local municipality, acknowledges the “challenges it has with sewer spillages onto the Vaal River:
“We’re very concerned with the state of the Vaal River, and the health of our residents…
“These spillages are more often caused by a combination of factors such as ageing infrastructure (sewer networks within the urban residential areas), coupled with human behaviour.”