South Africa


Court orders municipality to to act on long-standing sewage problems

Court orders municipality to to act on long-standing sewage problems
Makana is a city in the Eastern Cape Province of the Republic of South Africa and is the seat of the Makana municipality.

Residents of Makhanda have won another victory against the Makana municipality, with a judge ordering that officials must report to the court on progress they make in fixing a serious sewage problem in the town. The municipality consented to the order after it failed to file opposing papers. This comes after Judge Igna Stretch ruled that the municipality should be dissolved for its unconstitutional failure to provide services to residents.

The Makana municipality has been ordered to locate and fix all sewage spills in and around Makhanda and report back in detail, including on where the budget came from, to the High Court.

Judge Gerald Bloem issued the order this week after public interest litigation filed by a number of residents in Makhanda on whose properties there were ongoing sewage spills.

In January 2020, the Makhanda High Court ordered that the municipality be dissolved for its unconstitutional failure to provide municipal services to residents. Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane indicated earlier this week that he will request leave from the Supreme Court of Appeal to appeal this ruling.

In the meantime, the municipality has been given 30 days to compile a report for the court on all the sewage leaks in Makhanda.

“We are asking residents to help us,” an attorney at the Legal Resources Centre, Cecile van Schalkwyk, said. “We don’t want the municipality to come back to court and say they could only find one spill. We are appealing all residents to identify and report sewage spills or to use the Mobisam app to report spill locations,” she said.

She said an application had been filed in December 2019 and the municipality had indicated it would oppose it. The papers are divided into two parts, one an interdict for immediate relief and the second an order for systemic relief to ensure that the municipality is accountable for much-needed upgrades of the town’s sewerage system.

The municipality never filed papers explaining its opposition, then agreed to the order for immediate relief. The court has given the municipality until June 24 to file papers to oppose the order sought for systemic relief.

The extensive interdict signed by Judge Bloem orders the municipality to, within 15 days, attend to the sites of sewage spills identified by residents who brought the application.

The municipality has 48 hours to take all necessary steps to contain the spills including one that runs into a stormwater channel, clean existing spills, rod sewerage lines every two weeks until the spills are under control and treat affected areas with lime to minimise smell and health risks. The municipality is also compelled to clean the drains and pipes.

Town officials were also ordered to identify all sewage spills in and around Makhanda and file a report to the court detailing locations, steps that will be taken to fix the spills either temporarily or permanently, the budget that will be necessary to unblock the pipes, the source of funding that will be used to implement this section of the court order and which department will be controlling the budget and expenditure. All sewage spills must be cleaned up within 60 days after they are reported.

In papers before the court, the widespread sewage problem in Makhanda was described as a “health and environmental crisis that can no longer be ignored”. Many residents are struggling with skin and eye infections.

Cingiswa Pamela Sandi explained in an affidavit that the sewage problems started in 2016 but had become progressively worse since 2018 when the municipality installed more toilets in the area. Sewage runs underneath many residents’ houses

One of the residents who brought the application, Vusi Mthombeni, said the municipality’s consistent failure to take action “has had devastating consequences” for residents who now have to live with “the disastrous effects of an over-capacitated sanitation system which has fallen into complete disrepair”.

He added that, due to the municipality not consistently collecting rubbish, many of the spills had been caused by foreign objects lodged in pipes.

Court papers also contained a report from a structural engineer, Henty van der Merwe, which said 90% of the system was made of clay and had not been replaced by PVC piping. He added that the system needed bigger pipes.

Desperate residents from Joza location have also formed a committee to try to get the municipality to fix sewage problems – to no avail. Cingiswa Pamela Sandi explained in an affidavit that the sewage problems started in 2016 but had become progressively worse since 2018 when the municipality installed more toilets in the area. Sewage runs underneath many residents’ houses

“The stench in this area is appalling,” one of the affidavits reads. One of the women who lives in the area, Sindiswa Lukwe, often has raw faeces spilling into her bedroom.

“It is also clear that there is a serious lack of capacity on the part of the municipality to deal with the problem,” Mthombeni said. “There is no short- or long-term plan to address the dysfunctional sewerage works and very little communication with the affected communities. Municipal equipment utilised to address the problem on a short-term basis is often broken. Municipal officials frequently make promises to visit sites, meet with the residents, or send technicians to inspect their sites, yet for unexplained reasons no-one arrives and there is no follow-up.

“There have been many broken promises to come and fix the sewage spills, without any tangible results. There is no reason to believe that the municipality and [other government departments] will do anything without the intervention of the courts. We cannot fix the municipal sewerage system ourselves and we do not have the resources or the skills to fix the structural issue that causes the sewage to overflow,” Mthombeni added.

Following the outcome of the case, Mthombeni said he was relieved and happy that there would finally be some action. “We have had so many years of bitter disappointment,” he said. “It finally feels to me like we are making some progress. There are people who can do this work. We should not have needed to go to court – but I am happy we did. We are entitled to a safe environment,” he said.

Another community activist who has helped with the case, May Sandi, said she was very happy with the outcome:

“I really hope the municipality will clean up the sewage spills now… There are people here whose toilets have never been finished. It is a big mess. Also, the drain in front of my house is still blocked. We report and report and report and nothing ever happened before. But now they must clean.”

She added that she was also happy for the children because, “They are always scratching and have itchy skins and eyes. It is because there is so much sewage around. We hope it will get better now,” she said. DM/MC


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