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Fighting the filth – meet the people leading the charge against river pollution in South Africa

Fighting the filth – meet the people leading the charge against river pollution in South Africa
From left: Janet Simpkins of Adopt-a-River and Save Our Rivers and Seas; Paul Maluleke, founding member of Alex Water Warriors; Fritz Bekker, founding member of Gariep Watch; Dr Ferrial Adam, WaterCAN executive manager. (Photos: Supplied)

South Africa’s rivers are filled with sewage, plastic and industrial pollution. A recent webinar hosted by WaterCAN highlighted some of the crucial work being done by organisations to safeguard South Africa’s waterways.

“We recognise that some things are taking longer than others, and we have huge wastewater treatment plants that were affected and that’s not going to be a quick fix, but simple things in place at some of these sites might make a significant difference to how water is being put into the outflow,” said Janet Simpkins of Save Our Rivers and Seas. 

Simpkins was speaking during a webinar on the crucial work being done by organisations to combat river pollution in South Africa. 

The webinar was facilitated by Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN, and the speakers included Fritz Bekker of Gariep Watch and Paul Maluleke of Alex Water Warriors.

The start 

Simpkins’s water journey started with a campaign called Save our Rivers in KwaZulu-Natal. After being on the ground, she started to recognise that things weren’t right with the water. “Recognising that perhaps things weren’t right and there was something wrong with our water, and wanting to understand that a bit better, so evolved the campaign and the formation of a full nonprofit to tackle head-on the really complex issues in and around our rivers,” she said.

Although the organisation started in the Msunduzi River catchment, it has broadened its reach. “We have connected with groups north and south, community members, other organisations, towns, communities inland, as well as across the country.” Simpkins added that it is not a one-province issue since many provinces face similarly dire problems. 

‘More than the eye can see’

Simpkins is also director of Adopt-a-River, an organisation that monitors KwaZulu-Natal river pollution and does regular river clean-ups. It also tries to connect the corporate sector to work with municipal departments and the government. “That is ultimately our goal – to find an area of need, establish what the problems are. Some are really complex and are not going to be solved overnight – but just to put the right people in the room and find positive ways forward,” she said.

Tackling the waste problem revealed there was more waste in the water than could be seen. “Often the smell meant… sewage and change in colour of the river water meant that there were also other things at play,” she said. 

KwaZulu-Natal has faced a series of problems including the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 riots and the 2022 floods, she said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Tragedy in KZN as floods cause devastation, mostly for the poor in informal settlements

“It was one of those watershed movements that I think broke open and exposed more [of] the underlying issues of sewerage and infrastructure. We recognise that it’s happening around the country, but we had significant infrastructure damage in our province and that was sewerage but also water supply.” 

This had kicked off the campaign as there were towns and large communities left without water and the flow of sewage just continued. 

The December holiday period, a highlight on the calendar for local tourism, had been badly affected by the inadequate infrastructure and sewerage problems. The need arose among “a number of concerned individuals, ranging from businessmen to water users and the local community” to tackle them on “another level… and that is how Save our Rivers and Seas from sewage came about”. 

It is now a registered NPO, with experts and professionals on board with the knowledge and expertise needed to engage the right departments in the municipality to have an oversight function, and also offer support for what is needed, she explained.

It is a way for the private sector to get involved to escalate or try to fast-track some of the issues that need to be addressed, and find ways to maintain stable infrastructure.

Ecotourism in Alexandra

Paul Maluleke, founding member of Alex Water Warriors, has a background in tourism. One of the income-generating opportunities his community of Alexandra had was through ecotourism. 

“The first project that we wanted to carry out was to clean our image as Alexandra because it is forever on the news for the wrong reasons and the stigma is bad. It is not easy to sell Alexandra as a tourism destination when our name is not clean,” he said. The first step towards cleaning the name Alexandra was cleaning the environment, which was not welcoming. This was “a matter of emergency”.

United by the river 

The Covid-19 pandemic posed new challenges for the people of Alexandra because many had lost their jobs, he said. The Jukskei River, which is heavily polluted by urban runoff, is prone to bursting and affects residents in shacks along its banks. 

In September 2021, Alex Water Warriors started clean-ups of the river. 

“We have around 11 groups; we clean from the previously called London route; right now it is Vincent Tshabalala to Marlboro,” Maluleke said. 

Across the river, different groups are addressing different issues. “Some of the parts by the river banks, there are no communities that are staying there, but there are other parts like Sjwetla where there are lots of informal settlements.” 

Maluleke said they are also trying to address many other issues such as illegal dumping in the rivers: “There are other crimes that are happening within the river, like illegal sand mining, and it is obvious there are people who are using the river for their own activities.” The river was also a spiritual place used by prophets and traditional healers. 

Alex Water Warriors now has more than 500 volunteers, and while Maluleke is pleased with that, he acknowledges that people cannot volunteer forever: “We now have a few contracts like the social employment fund and we have a working relationship with City Parks.”

He added that he has seen residents come together: “We are saying enough is enough, we are tired of people dumping in our river systems, so now we want to clean our river systems.” 

Holding people accountable 

Gariep Watch, a civil organisation that protects rivers by monitoring them, collecting data, scientifically investigating and encouraging public participation on the subject of river pollution, has laid criminal charges for sewage pollution. These have been filed against the municipal managers of Vanderkloof, Hopetown, Upington, Kakamas and Vredesvallei on the Orange River, as well as Bloemhof, Christiana, Warrenton, Vaalharts, Jan Kempdorp and Barkly West on the Vaal River.

Fritz Bekker, a founding member of Gariep Watch, said they are also prosecuting the municipal managers in the lower Orange River and Middle Orange River.  

Gariep Watch started with a study requested by the agricultural industry in the lower Orange River in 2017. “I did a first-face investigation in 2017 and based on that I initiated the quarterly monitoring programme,” he said. 

They used the Water User Association to do the monitoring. “We have trained them to take the samples and we have changed the sampling localities to not reflect the Department of Water localities, but to reflect upstream and downstream from the major point sources of pollution.”

Uncharted territories’

Local authorities are the biggest polluters in South Africa at the moment, according to Bekker. “We are finding ourselves in uncharted territories with the amount of pollution in the river, we’ve never seen something like this in South Africa.”

Several municipalities discharge sewage into the river, he said, and a two-tiered approach had been adopted to try to rectify this. “We take forensic quality samples and we research the effect of the sewage pollution of the river systems, and the second tier is to follow a legal process.”  

The samples revealed very high levels of bacterial concentrations, with a mix of pathogens and toxins going into the river. “E coli, very high COD [chemical oxygen demand], total nitrogen, suspended solids, and water phosphate,” he said. Municipalities are required to monitor E. coli, salinity and dissolved oxygen. 

However, there is more to sewage than that, said Bekker. 

“We developed a toolbox that looks at environmental toxicity and sediment toxicity and a whole range of variables to accurately monitor the dangers of sewage.”

What does the law say?

It is a criminal offence to pollute water, said Bekker. Using section 24 of the Constitution, the National Water Act, the National Environmental Management Act, the Health Act and municipal legislation was key to successfully laying charges. “All combined it is actually very good legislation to use.” 

Gariep Watch essentially creates dockets for the police. “They are not specialists in water quality management, so we create the docket, we lay the charge at the police station and we get the case or docket number,” he said. “We get that docket to the environmental inspectorate because they have got the personnel and then we make sure that everyone does their job.” 

WaterCAN’s Adam added that it was important to share resources, documentation and practical steps on how to approach the police. “We need to create an awareness among the South African police to say that it is okay for us to issue a criminal charge for pollution.”

Safeguarding the country’s waterways 

Adam stressed the importance of working in collaboration with one another and educating the public about this issue:

“We have to continue building this movement, we cannot be working in isolation… We cannot be piecemeal organisations trying to fix a river that flows throughout our country.” DM/MC/OBP

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