South Africa

TOXIC ENVIRONMENT

Vaal River sewage contamination a crisis, human rights violation and liability to the state, commission finds

Vaal River sewage contamination a crisis, human rights violation and liability to the state, commission finds

A South African Human Rights Commission report on the contamination of the Vaal River system declares one of the country’s crucial water assets is ‘polluted beyond acceptable standards’.

A 117-page report published by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Wednesday singled out the “kilolitres of untreated sewage entering the Vaal” as the primary cause of the system’s contamination. 

“It is accepted that the inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants have been unable to manage the treatment of the sewage and wastewater produced.

“As a result, raw sewage flowed not only in the Vaal but also on to residential streets, schools, homes and other public areas in the jurisdiction of the [Emfuleni] municipality,” the report states. 

The final report of the Gauteng provincial inquiry into the sewage problem of the Vaal River is the culmination of a three-year investigation by the SAHRC to ascertain the extent of the human rights violations caused by the contamination. 

As a Chapter 9 institution, the commission is mandated to protect constitutional democracy by ensuring the protection of human rights. 

The scope of the inquiry was: to determine the extent and consequences of the human rights violations; the persons/and or state and/or private entities responsible; whether sewage spillage into the Vaal constituted a disaster as defined in the Disaster Management Act of 2002; and the various accountability, disciplinary and/or prosecution mechanisms which can be implemented against the parties involved.

In 2018, media report after media report documented the revolting conditions that Emfuleni Municipality residents live under as a result of raw sewage spillages into their homes and public spaces. 

The river’s contamination is so dire that in 2018 the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, announced the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) deployment to fix the Vaal River system on an emergency basis. Initially assigned to spend a year fixing 46 water pump stations, three months into the operation funding dried up and this stalled their work. 

The SANDF’s work was also documented in the inquiry during an in-person submission. 

The report said there is no compliance “at all spheres of government” with legal frameworks that protect water resources and regulate water and sanitation services. 

While the SAHRC acknowledged some of the interventions made by the national Department of Water and Sanitation, national Treasury and provincial Treasury to address the sewage problem and general collapse of the Emfuleni municipality, the commission said: “These efforts have not been enough to address the unmanageable situation occurring in the area.” 

The municipality has been under administration since 2018. 

Parliament’s Committee on Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Water and Sanitation and Human Settlements has from time to time expressed dissatisfaction with the provincial government’s progress concerning the Section 189 process. 

The SAHRC’s report notes that, “Reports from Parliament stated that the first two years of the intervention were a failure and that the province is trying again.” 

The province’s MEC for Human Settlements, Urban Planning and Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Lebogang Maile, said his office would study the findings of the report and its recommendations to formulate an extensive report to be considered by the executive council. 

In addition to welcoming the report, Maile reflected on some of the “groundbreaking interventions” of the provincial government to implement the Section 189 process. 

“Currently, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is providing Emfuleni with eight sewer unblocking trucks, with a total cost of R14-million, and a further R8-million will be spent by DWS on civil, electrical and mechanical related services in the municipality. An additional R50-million will be spent on unblocking sewer bulk lines,” he said. 

A further R53-million, according to Maile, has been allocated for waste collection to restore the weekly collection across the municipality. 

No reference to other contamination sources 

Although the report makes damning findings of the government’s failure to apply corrective measures and comply with relevant legislation, the report does not make any recommendations or finding against other alleged sources of contamination. 

During the inquiry, Sasol and ArcelorMittal South Africa were identified as possible polluters by whistle-blowers. 

A whistle-blower from Sasol told the commission of alleged illicit activities at the chemicals company, during the commission’s final oral sitting in February 2019

He claimed that the company’s Secunda plant in Mpumalanga was responsible for pumping hazardous chemicals such as vanadium into the Vaal River catchment area. He said that when he tried to raise the alarm about this he was harassed, threatened, abused, suspended and demoted.

Both ArcelorMittal and Sasol declined the claims and were given the chance to rebut the claims via written submissions. 

“In our submission, we told the commission that, inasmuch as Emfuleni is the major contributor to the contamination of the system… there are other contributors, which are huge industrial industries,” said Samson Mokoena, a coordinator at the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance. 

He said these big industrial companies have zero liquid discharge (ZLD) – a wastewater management system whereby all industrial water is recycled and used again in the industrial process to prevent hazardous contamination. 

“However, we have seen that there is a continuous release of the industrial water into the [Vaal River] system, hence our submission,” he said. 

Mokoena said they will engage further with the SAHRC to investigate other contaminators of the river.

Maureen Stewart, the vice-chairperson of Save the Vaal Environment, said nothing had changed since the inquiry. 

“We haven’t seen the kind of progress we expected to see.” 

“We hope the report will get the authorities acting; it’s certainly additional pressure. They will have to sit up and take notice. It will be interesting to see their responses to the commission, and we hope to see implementation plans with dates, timelines, budget and contractors appointed, because that’s not the case at the moment,” she added. 

The commission has given various government stakeholders, including national, provincial and local government authorities 60 days to respond to the report’s recommendations. DM

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  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    Based on history, this report is a waste of time and will soon flow with the tonnes of sewage and industrial waste down the Vaal River into the Vaal Dam, over the wall to Douglas where it will meet the sewarage coming down the Gariep River and after streaming over the Augrabies Falls will eventually flow into the Atlantic Ocean to kill the already threatened marine life.
    Based on reality, this report has not covered all the sources of contamination either. For instance, where is the Lekwa municipality in all of this? It has a long and illustrious history of dumping sewarage in the Vaal. Did the SANDF patrols make any difference? Only the very naive would say yes. Can’t anyone in South Africa do anything proper? Sixty days for authorities to respond? And then what? This is also a no-brainer: nothing. Just more ***** and poisonous chemicals in our rivers. Another ****hole country in Africa. Politically, economically, socially, academically and now also literally.

  • Harro von Blottnitz says:

    So sad. How are all spheres of government failing so badly to get the basics right? And the people suffer.

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