ROAD TO 2021 LOCAL ELECTIONS
Ground Level Report: Chris Hani Municipality’s rivers of sewage flow freely after years of incompetence and neglect
With a third of its sewage plants only partially operational, the Chris Hani District Municipality is responsible for years of waste running into the Eastern Cape’s rivers. With less than five weeks to the local government elections, we unpack how neglect has caused an environmental crisis.
The Chris Hani District Municipality has admitted that a third of its wastewater treatment works are not fully functioning. It now faces new criminal charges after ignoring warnings, directives and notices to stop letting raw sewage flow into the Eastern Cape’s rivers.
The Democratic Alliance’s Vicky Knoetze and the party’s mayoral candidate for the Inxuba Yethemba municipality in Cradock, Monde Desha, this week opened a criminal case relating to ongoing sewage spills in the area. The charges were lodged against Gcobani Mashiyi, the municipal manager for the Chris Hani District Municipality.
Desha said he will fight for the water and sanitation competencies to be returned to local municipalities. These were removed in 2015 after a decision was taken to transfer them to the larger district municipalities.
‘Partially operational’ wastewater pumps
Bulelwa Ganyaza, Senior Manager: Communication, Customer Care and Stakeholder Management for the Chris Hani District Municipality, said they had 52 pump stations and wastewater treatment works that were being operated on a 24-hour basis.
“Thirty-five of these are fully operational whilst 17 are partially operational,” she said.
Ganyaza said they had not heard anything about the criminal charges apart from what they’d read in the media.
She admitted that the Dordrecht pump stations were problematic.
“The district effected repairs and refurbishments to ensure their full functionality, however, the infrastructure was once more targeted by vandals (theft and vandalism occurrences) which seriously affected the service resulting in interruptions with pumping,” she said.
Ganyaza said the municipality is responding to the directives issued by the Department of Water and Sanitation with a “comprehensive action plan” that outlines a programme to address the issues raised.
“In this case, some of the challenges are related to aged infrastructure coupled with growth of population, which affects the capacity of these sewer treatment works. The issues are recurring in different parts of the district and they are dealt with through our operations and maintenance programme within the available resources.
“The district municipality recently embarked on a revenue collection campaign to collect monies owed by different categories of consumers. This programme started off with business and government departments where stakeholders were informed of the intention and individually written to, encouraging payment of debts. A number of customers responded by paying or making arrangements, resources required to assist improve on the quality of the service rendered.
“The cutting of water therefore only applied to those that did not respond and it is not related to the meeting [about the sewage],” Ganyaza continued.
“Spillages are a cause for concern to the district, hence whenever these erupt, our technical teams are deployed to unblock the sewer lines by making use of different equipment, from rods to high pressure jetting machines. We also ensure that areas are treated to rehabilitate and conserve the environment. Our teams patrol the sites across the district to detect sewer spillages as the wellbeing of the society is our main priority.
Drone footage taken during September, 2021, showing massive sewage spills in Dordrecht in the Eastern Cape. Picture: Supplied
“Repairs are always affected immediately when there is a system failure to ensure interruption of services. There are plans in place to apply for funding focusing on infrastructure upgrades as most of our infrastructure has reached its lifespan.”
Retief Odendaal from the DA said it was becoming increasingly clear that the Chris Hani District Municipality had neither the human resources nor the skills to manage the massive sewage and water problems in the area.
He said ongoing sewage spills in many of the rivers in the municipality’s jurisdiction were creating a “catastrophic risk” for agriculture, tourism and the people who live in the area.
A litany of non-compliance
While Ganyaza insisted the municipality was complying with directives from the Department of Water and Sanitation to fix their wastewater treatment works, an analysis of these directives have shown otherwise.
Regular directives have been sent since 2017 for a number of failing wastewater treatment plants under the jurisdiction of the municipality.
Since 2020, the department has issued the municipality with eight notices, pre-directives and directives over the Cradock wastewater treatment works.
Residents and businesses in the area also obtained an interdict against the municipality over the sewage spills. The municipality did not meet the deadlines it had set for itself in an action plan to fix the problem.
In 2017 a first directive was sent to the municipality to deal with ongoing sewage spills at Indwe. According to documentation, the primary sewage pond in the town was overflowing and full of sludge and the system was blocked. The Mzamo pump station, according to directives from the department, “was always blocked”, spilling raw sewage into the river.
For Elliott, three directives and notices of non-compliance have been issued and an action plan was requested from the municipality to deal with the sewage crisis there. Ongoing sewage spillages have led to the pollution of the Slang River. There is a new wastewater plant in Elliott but it does not appear to be in use.
According to notices from the Department of Water and Sanitation, this was due to “political and social issues”.
For Engcobo, three directives and follow-up directives were issued. Inspections found the wastewater treatment works to be deteriorating. Follow-up correspondence indicated that the department had received a response from the municipality on the issue but it did not address their non-compliance with safe water practices at the Engcobo sewerage works. The municipality was asked to file a proper action plan in a directive that outlined the criminal offences relating to the issue.
A notice of non-compliance was issued for Hofmeyr for failing to comply with safe levels of E. coli bacteria in the water. It was also found that the linings of the sewage ponds were ineffective, allowing for seepage in the environment.
A directive, follow-up directive and notice of non-compliance were issued for Indwe, Lady Frere and Middeldeur.
At Indwe, department officials had found primary sewage ponds were overflowing and full of sludge. The “final pond” was also overflowing and spilling over and there were many blockages in the system.
Apart from a directive and follow-up directive issued for Sterkstroom, the department also wrote to the Eastern Cape Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) about the sewage control in this town.
The municipality received a warning from the Department of Water and Sanitation about frequent sewage spills, poor operations and maintenance. The municipal manager was cited in a notice to cease the pollution of rivers within two working days. An action plan filed by the municipality to deal with the issue was rejected due to a lack of information.
In 2019 the department issued the municipality with a directive indicating that the wastewater treatment works at Sterkstroom had now collapsed and the intervention of Cogta was requested.
Notices of non-compliance, a pre-directive and a directive were also issued with regard to the Tsomo wastewater treatment plant.
In 2019, another directive was issued after the department discovered that the municipality was still operating the Tsomo wastewater works, even though the emergency sewage pond was overflowing into one of the rivers. The directive states that there had not been a response to a request to file an action plan to deal with the issue. Inspections three months and again eight months later showed a failure to comply on the side of the municipality.
In 2017 a directive was issued for the Whittlesea wastewater treatment works for engaging in water use without authorisation. At the time, the sewage works had primary settling tanks that were overflowing into streams and rivers. At the time, the chlorination chamber at the sewage works had also not been working for a year.
Inspections in 2018 concluded that the state of the wastewater treatment works were such that they were “likely to cause pollution” and were not effectively managed.
In 2019 another directive was issued, indicating that the wastewater treatment works had collapsed and were posing a significant risk to drinking water. Cogta was asked to intervene.
Fresh warnings were subsequently issued by the department for the Indwe wastewater treatment works, as the municipality failed to implement measures to stop pollution. An action plan was submitted by the municipality but this was rejected with a caution that the pollution was reaching levels that would require criminal charges to be filed.
Another directive was issued after raw sewage began spilling from manholes in Indwe and Lady Frere. Directives for Lady Frere issued in 2018 and 2019 indicated that spills into the Cacadu River had been continuing for two years.
In 2018 and 2019, the municipality received a warning that the sewerage structures for Queenstown (now Komani) had collapsed and had led to the pollution of the environment and the Komani River. A subsequent notice adds that the Chris Hani District Municipality has continuously failed to resubmit an action plan to correct this issue.
There is a long history of non-compliance by the municipality, with several directives and warnings that have been issued for the wastewater treatment works in Cradock, including that the municipality was failing to operate the plant “optimally”, causing pollution of the Great Fish River, failing to submit information on time and a notice following an inspection that the plant was not effectively managed.
An impromptu inspection in 2018 found that the plant was in a state of disrepair. A notice was issued that the wastewater treatment works were in contravention of notices issued by the department.
Two notices were subsequently issued following large spills into the Fish River and a pump spillage into one of its tributaries. Another notice was issued for Middelburg for a spill into the Klein Brak River, with a warning to correct within 48 hours. An action plan to address the issue was rejected by the department.
The municipality received further notices that the Engcobo sewage works were not operated optimally, causing the pollution of the Cefani River. During a further site inspection, the department noted that the situation had not improved. An action plan was filed by the municipality but was rejected as it had no timeframe, no budget and did not contain adequate information.
A directive was issued for Tsomo in 2019 for raw sewage flowing into the Tsomo River. In 2019 this was followed up by a directive for failing to repair the sewage works – a situation that led to drinking water being contaminated.
In 2019, several more directives were issued citing poor operations, poor maintenance, dysfunctional wastewater treatment works, collapsed infrastructure, the critical state of sewage plants and fears for drinking water quality.
The municipality was again cited for a spill in Middelburg that led to the contamination of the Klein Brak River, and for failing to implement corrective measures since the previous spill.
‘The stench is unbearable’
“Perhaps it is fitting,” said Pieter Greyling, that one of the rivers was renamed the Cacadu River. “Especially the first bit.”
Sewage has been pouring into the town’s natural wetlands as the sewage works fell further into disrepair.
“The stench is unbearable,” said Greyling, a community leader from Dordrecht. “The Chris Hani District Municipality is raping our wetlands.”
He explained that the town had a well-functioning sewage plant for many years – until the water and sanitation function of the local municipality was taken over by the Chris Hani District Municipality.
The 2015 decision to remove these functions from local municipalities and give them to district municipalities was highly controversial.
Greyling said due to a lack of maintenance, the wastewater works were in a continuous state of disrepair.
Simple tasks, like cleaning the screens designed to catch objects like sanitary pads, nappies and other foreign objects in the sewers, are not done on a regular basis, leading to the pumps burning out.
“They gave the contract to someone who charged the municipality R1.7-million and could not fix the pumps. Other contractors could have done it for R200,000,” Greyling said.
Meanwhile, the sewage problem in the town has become so bad that some people find their houses surrounded by effluent.
“In some cases the sewage now bubbles through the wooden floors,” said Greyling.
He said due to high levels of sewage, the streams and tributaries have become overgrown with green algae.
“Many of the farmers are complaining about their dams being green. Even now if you look you will find three dead cows where they drank the water.”
Greyling said they called a town meeting in August to discuss the crisis.
“It was very heated,” he said. “One of the officials got up and said the municipality kept on giving contracts to politically connected people who cannot do the work.
“The official said he was gatvol of the situation. One of the senior people who attended the meeting told him to count his words. He said they must fire him if they want to.
“The municipality then accused the business community of not paying their accounts, but we have not received accounts in ages.
“The next week, a set of truly crazy accounts arrived in town. The school got one for R1.5-million, some for R90,000, some for R95,000. They never open their offices in town so you cannot dispute your account. Then the water to many businesses got cut off.
“I have just bought a property and asked for a rates clearance certificate, which they gave. Then I got an account for R45,000. I haven’t even had the property for 18 months. They forgot to subtract the R43,000 that the previous owner paid when he got the rates clearance certificate. They were very red-faced, but were forced to switch my water on again,” he said.
“We told them five years ago that we are happy to pay our accounts, but they must send them. The local municipalities were very angry because they lost their competency to provide water and sanitation services, as these made money for them. They refused to share their database with the district municipality. It was since then that we have been in this stand-off.
“They refuse to write off debts older than five years and they can’t send out accounts for more recent years. That is the story,” he said.
The DA’s Knoetze said it was a serious concern that the municipality no longer tested the quality of wastewater. “They are avoiding it because they know what the results will be.” She said there are threats that the ongoing contamination of the area’s rivers will shut down the export fruit market.
Brent McNamara, from Agri-Eastern Cape, has confirmed that the municipality faces legal action from them for their failure to stop ongoing sewage spills. DM/MC
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