Our Burning Planet


Putting a cork into South Africa’s overflowing sewage crisis

Putting a cork into South Africa’s overflowing sewage crisis
Sewage runs down a street in Dunoon, a township in Cape Town. Sewage spillages and overflows are rife in the area. (Photo: Peter Luhanga)

Where is the evidence of determined action to remedy the nationwide sewage pollution crisis?

‘What happens at the local sewage works is not a very sexy issue. Politicians get far more kudos for building new and shiny things rather than keeping basic water and waste services running properly.  Because sewage treatment is kind of out of sight and out of mind, it’s not a big deal. All this contributes to the lack of maintenance.” — Professor Michael Kidd, environmental law specialist, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Barely a week goes by without another report of human excrement pouring into streets and rivers across the country. In some cases, homes have been flooded, fish wiped out and tourist beaches forced to close. Health researchers also warn about the increasing danger of waterborne diseases.

These alarm bells have been ringing for years, yet where is the evidence of determined action to remedy the nationwide sewage pollution crisis?

sewage pollution crisis south africa durban

The Northern Waste Water Treatment Works, source of the high sewage pollution levels which led to the recent closure of several tourist beaches in Durban (Image: Shawn Herbst, Netcare 911)

Ultimately, huge piles of money will be required to refurbish collapsing infrastructure and to employ and train competent managers, engineers and technicians. Yet, there may also be some effective short-term reforms that would start to make a difference — including the rapid reinstatement of the Green Drop monitoring system that was dumped during the tenure of former Water and Sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane.

Our Burning Planet spoke to veteran water managers, engineers and environmental law experts to explore possible solutions.

Neil Macleod, a water and civil engineering consultant to the World Bank and other groups, believes there are some relatively simple solutions that would start to make a difference.

Paraphrased very brutally it boils down to hiring properly qualified management and staff; allowing them to do their jobs without undue political interference, and monitoring problems on the horizon before they become a crisis — much like servicing your car to avoid a potentially deadly brake failure or engine seizure.

Macleod, who retired in 2014 after more than 20 years at the helm of the eThekwini (Durban) Water and Sanitation Department, sees a need for a drastic reduction in the number of water service authorities nationwide — thereby reducing duplication and making better use of specialist engineering staff and management.

“I have been saying for many years that we have too many water service authorities. Why do we need over 140 authorities scattered around the country? If we had only 50, we would need correspondingly fewer professional managers and other key staff (instead of nearly three times that number).”

These streamlined authorities should be located in cities and towns with a larger base of relatively richer people who would be charged a bit more to cross-subsidise neighbouring poorer areas.

Each authority would also require a competent water and sanitation manager — dedicated solely to these functions, rather than overseeing a multiplicity of other municipal functions.

“The requirements for these managers need to go beyond just technical or engineering skills. They also need to have a proper knowledge of finance and management.

“From my personal perspective, I was already qualified as a civil engineer, but I lacked other vital skills. So, I did an MBA and it changed my life and enabled me to run a department of more than 3,000 staff with an annual turnover of over R7-billion.

sewage pollution crisis south africa macleod

Neil Macleod. (Photo: Supplied)

“I was lucky to have Obed Mlaba as mayor of Durban during much of my tenure. He also had an MBA and did not interfere. He said: ‘Neil, you run this business.’ Now we seem to have 25-year-old politicians who want to run multibillion-rand entities.”

Technical staff also need to be trained properly — rather than adopting quick-fix approaches like the 2015 War on Leaks scheme to train 15,000 youths as plumbers and artisans over a short period.

In reality, says Macleod, it takes at least 18 months to be trained properly as an apprentice with the necessary skills for major infrastructure — not just household plumbing.

“You also need to ring-fence municipal water revenue so that it is not bled off into esoteric, rah-rah projects or bloated teams for the mayoral office.”

Nevertheless, Macleod says he is encouraged that Senzo Mchunu, the new national Water and Sanitation Minister, called experts together to establish a new task team at the recent water and sanitation summit in Midrand.

He suggests that private sector skills can be used to turn around dysfunctional municipal water and sanitation departments via temporary management contracts and skills transfer schemes, similar to the model used by Joburg Water from 2000 to 2005.

“The staff are still employed by the state but there are independent managers for a fixed period who then step away in a phased approach as the skills are transferred.”

Macleod thinks it is vital that a completely transparent Green Drop wastewater monitoring and evaluation scheme is reinstated quickly.

sewage pollution crisis south africa cape town

A fishing trawler passes through a plume of sewage discharged into the sea off Cape Town. The city dumps wastewater into sea via three marine pipelines at Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay, along with a fourth pipeline for the fuel refinery at Milnerton. (Photo: Jean Tresfon (https://www.facebook.com/JeanTresfonPhotography)

Until this scheme was quashed in 2014, the national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) sent out evaluation questionnaires to municipalities every year, as well as to independent auditors, “to make sure they were not lying”.

“They also looked at plans for the future, the number of staff, the qualifications of staff — all the things that are necessary for the good management of vital infrastructure assets.”

Just before the local government elections in 2016, Macleod asked (former) water minister Nomvula Mokonyane: “Why have you stopped the Green Drop report?”

Macleod says the short answer was that the results were “just too terrible”. So it was stopped.

“This was a system designed to find out what we were doing well, or not doing well. By stopping it, the department lost its ability to either monitor or to support municipalities which were running into problems.”

Professor Michael Kidd, a specialist in environmental law and water law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, echoes the importance of bringing back the Green Drop scheme.

“The 2009 Green Drop report released by the national Department of Water indicated that, of the 449 water treatment plants assessed for the report (53% of the total number in the country), only 65 (14.5%) were in compliance with legal standards applicable to the release of treated effluent.”

Later, when the 2011 Green Drop report was released, details of compliance with applicable legal standards were not provided for each municipality. Nevertheless, overall results showed that only 44% of plants managed to score above 50% in the rating.

More recent reports have not been published, but widespread evidence of continuing problems with sewage contamination suggest little, if any, improvement.

sewage pollution crisis south africa kidd

Prof Michael Kidd (Photo: Supplied)

Kidd is also concerned that the national department appears to have misinterpreted — possibly deliberately — some of its legal responsibilities in the context of the separation of powers of the three tiers of government.

Whereas national, provincial and local governments each have their own “functional areas” (with water and sanitation devolved to local municipalities), Kidd emphasises that overall governance of water is an exclusive national competence in terms of the Constitution.

“The Constitution does not prevent the (national) department from supporting municipalities, but it does prevent them from interfering — and that is a very big difference.

“The bottom line is that, when it comes to government offenders (in the vast majority of cases involving untreated sewage in water supply, the offenders are local government bodies), the DWS sees the directive requiring action as the last step they can take.

“If the directive is not complied with (probably the case in most instances), the department regards any further action (such as prosecution) as legally incompetent. Which, in my view, it is not.”

While DWS indicated recently it was preparing criminal actions against some municipalities, Kidd says he is not aware of any successful prosecutions.

“But I’m not even sure if that is realistic in many cases. What would be achieved by threatening them with prosecution? Some could be fined — but the problems would persist if there is no support or finance to remedy the root problems.”

Kidd suggests that, in many cases, it is not a case of wilful non-compliance but rather a lack of sufficient assistance from the national department.

“We also hear reports that a significant percentage of posts in DWS remain unfilled and there is no suggestion that things have improved recently. Some employees have previously described the department as Hollywood — because so many key staff were acting.”

sewage pollution crisis south africa hartebeespoort

Water hyacinth weeds have choked large sections of the Hartebeespoort Dam due to high sewage pollution levels — adding to the cost of treating drinking water from major dams. (Photo: Peet Venter)

Kidd says there is definitely a case for enforcement in cases of wilful non-compliance, but suggests the first port of call should be: “How can we work this out together?”

It’s almost a passing of the buck by the national department, he suggests, as many municipalities have no realistic prospect of sourcing the finances to fix up the infrastructure.

“They also lack human resources. So this involves much more than DWS alone. Ultimately, it’s a Cabinet issue. The other problem is that what happens at the local sewage works is not a very sexy issue. Politicians get far more kudos for building new and shiny things rather than keeping basic water and waste services running properly.  So, because sewage treatment is kind of out of sight and out of mind, it’s not a big deal. All this contributes to the lack of maintenance.”

Dan Naidoo, chairman of the board of the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA), says the bottom line can be summarised in two words: “accountability” and “leadership”.

Commenting on the recent South African Human Rights Commission’s damning report on sewage pollution in the Vaal River, Naidoo said DWS had failed to hold the Emfuleni municipality to account for long-standing raw sewage pollution of this major river system.

According to the SAHRC report, nearly 19 million people depend on the Vaal River for water, for drinking and for domestic and commercial use.

“The Vaal is now polluted beyond acceptable standards… because of inoperative and dilapidated wastewater treatment plants. The population of yellowfish peculiar to a few South African rivers such as the Vaal are under threat of extinction on account of the change to the balance of river flora and other competing species in the river caused by pollution of the Vaal.”

Naidoo, who is also a regional manager for Umgeni Water, says when local government fails and there is no accountability, basic services fail, and constitutional rights are violated.

“Due to the critical importance of water as a basic human right, it is essential that accountable, technically equipped and professional people are placed within key government posts.”

He suggests that the professionalisation of key water posts within government and water-related institutions will end this lack of accountability.

sewage pollution crisis south africa naidoo

Dan Naidoo (Photo: Tony Carnie)

“When we look at public servants — people who are working in SOEs, water boards, municipalities and government departments — we need to reflect on the skills, experience and capacity required to execute the requirements of these key portfolios.

“What training and skills related to these portfolios did the incumbents have? If key water-related posts are professionalised, then at least there is a minimum technical requirement in terms of qualification, proven experience and competency.

“We need public servants who are technically competent and can conduct their work in an ethical way — showing care for the environment and the public. We should never be faced with a court ruling that forces us to do our jobs,” he wrote in a recent editorial in the WISA magazine Water and Sanitation Africa.

“The water sector has the skills — we have brilliant scientists and engineers. But we have allowed the Vaal Dam to be polluted, infrastructure to fail and certain areas to have no water at all. How have we allowed this degradation to happen? As custodians of a precious resource, we should ask ourselves every day: What more can we do (or not do) to make sure that we conduct our duties in a professional manner?”

Naidoo says he is astonished that infrastructure is not at the front of the line when it comes to government priorities.

“It is obvious that most of our infrastructure is failing. I cannot help but ask: are we communicating correctly? It feels as if we are having the same discussion year in and year out, with very little traction. There cannot be any progress if there is no investment in infrastructure,” he said, noting that the National Water and Sanitation Master Plan estimated that R1-trillion will be needed to fund and rehabilitate water and sanitation infrastructure.

“Do we all have to face a ‘Day Zero’ until something is done? Countries that worked with scientists and made decisions based on science were a lot more successful in fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This must also happen with water. Let us leave politics out of decisions, work together with scientists, and implement worthwhile solutions that will benefit everyone.” DM/OBP

​​Recent developments at the Department of Water and Sanitation

Despite the criticisms above, there have been several notable developments affecting the Department of Water and Sanitation over the past year.

  • In July 2021 the department announced that it would reinstate the Blue Drop (clean tap water) certification scheme and “partially” reinstate the Green Drop certification scheme for municipal wastewater, with the first results scheduled to be released towards the end of next month (March 2022)

Acting Deputy Director-General Leonardo Manus, responsible for Compliance, Monitoring and Evaluation, said the resuscitation of the two schemes aimed to ensure compliance with legislation and improved service delivery.

  • In August, President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed Senzo Mchunu as the new Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation. Significantly, the new department was separated from the Housing/Human Settlements portfolio to focus solely on water and sanitation.
  • Also in August, the department admitted in a statement that one of the main sources of domestic and river pollution stemmed from municipal wastewater treatment works, sewer blockages, poor operations and maintenance as well as pollution from mining operations.

Siboniso Mkhaliphi, the Acting Chief Director in the Department’s Compliance, Monitoring and Enforcement unit, said the department had designated the Green Scorpions to help curb water pollution nationwide.

Since 2014, the Green Scorpions had investigated 598 cases related to dysfunctional wastewater treatment works said Mkhaliphi, noting that “the Department embarks on legal processes as a last resort and only takes legal action after numerous attempts to persuade and compel municipalities to rectify their non-compliances.”

It had also opened five criminal cases involving municipalities with the South African Police Service, while 148 pre-directive notices and 74 directives had also been issued over the last eight years.

  • In December, Dr Sean Phillips was appointed as the new permanent Director-General of the department. He is a qualified engineer and holds BEng Hons, MSc, MM and PhD degrees from Wits University and Warwick University.

Phillips has held posts at the National Treasury, as an independent consultant and has more than 20 years of senior management experience in the public service.

He has also worked at the Development Bank of SA, Department of Planning and Evaluation in the Presidency, Department of Public Works, Department of Public Enterprises, City of Johannesburg and Johannesburg Roads Agency.

  • Earlier this month, Mchunu invited a wide variety of stakeholders to a two-day National Water and Sanitation Summit in Midrand “to craft lasting solutions to challenges facing the sector to ensure water security and dignified sanitation”.

Mchunu pledged that the summit was aimed at solutions and action instead of being another talk shop.

“Our people are tired of us talking and making endless promises, they want concrete solutions, they want clean water, they want dignified sanitation from us, and we are constitutionally mandated to provide these basic services to them,” he said. DM/OBP

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • André van Niekerk says:

    Engineers have warned of this for years. The opening statement of this article says it all, “What happens at the local sewage works is not a very sexy issue. Politicians get far more kudos for building new and shiny things rather than keeping basic water and waste services running properly. ”
    This is true of all engineering services, i.e. water, sewerage, roads, waste management plants and electrical infrastructure.
    Councilors spend on community halls, play parks, functions for the elderly, i.e. everything popular and visible. This gets them elected.
    Spending on critical infrastructure has been lacking for the last fifty years. With services being underground and hidden from sight, engineers have battled for years trying to motivate for funds and staff, unsuccessfully. Just read through the presentations at the annual Imesa (Institute for Municipal Engineering) and other professional institutes’ conferences.
    While Neil Macleod was at Ethekwini, they were a model for South African municipalities.
    With the retirement of a generation of strong municipal engineers, they are, and will be, in many instances replaced by either incompetent managers, or at least young, promising individuals but with no appropriate experience.
    There is still no commitment to ensure that engineering departments are adequately funded.
    Bottom line – it will get worse.
    Watch this space as wastewater treatment works and water purification plants fail, pipes and roadworks break up.

  • Franz Dullaart says:

    It’s a bit ridiculous to write on the “Burning Planet” platform when the country is drowning in sh1t.

  • Anthony Williams says:

    It should also be borne in mind that sewage and waste water treatment relies on a stable power supply, and with Eskom being such a liability in that regard, this also greatly contributes to the difficulty of operating such plant efficiently and effectively.

    • Biff Trotters says:

      I agree that a stable power supply is required for such activities, but let’s not make Eskom the scapegoat for every failing of National and Local Government. My rough estimation is that Eskom is the cause of less that 10% of the issue. I say put the blame of the other 90% where it belongs.

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