Our Burning Planet


Tests show high levels of E. coli in Joburg botanical garden waterfall after sewage leak

Tests show high levels of E. coli in Joburg botanical garden waterfall after sewage leak
Dr. Ferrial Adam, WaterCAN’s executive manager, conducts a testing demonstration at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden in Roodepoort, Johannesburg, using a kit provided by Outa. The test showed high levels of chlorine and E. coli. (Photo: Bruce Smyth / Outa)

WaterCAN, an arm of Outa, launched its Water Testing Week initiative at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden, showing that the water flowing from a waterfall into a river is heavily polluted, owing to a sewage leak.

Citizen activism is one of the ways locals can lend a helping hand to address the dire state of the country’s water, Dr Ferial Adam, executive manager at WaterCAN, told Daily Maverick at the launch of the organisation’s Water Testing Week, which found high levels of pollution in one of Johannesburg’s key water features. 

“Our water is in a dire state. Yes, in the City of Johannesburg we can drink our [tap] water, but the high levels of pollution are putting strain on the system. It’s going to cost more to clean, and we need to constantly monitor. 

water test

Water samples are placed on the red dot, which then indicates the quality of the water. (Photo: Bruce Smyth / Outa)

“Look what’s happening with Joburg and Rand Water; things are falling apart. There is something happening with the infrastructure – we’re not quite clear on the details, but it is a concern. That’s why it’s important for us to test. So we use testing as a starting point; we need to build this network of activist citizen scientists to monitor water across the country,” Adam said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s not us, says Johannesburg Water, it’s Rand Water cutting Joburg’s supply

The initiative was launched at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden in Roodepoort, on Johannesburg’s West Rand. The garden features sublime grounds, including a marvellous waterfall. However, a water test conducted showed signs of pollutants in the water flowing from the waterfall and into the river that winds through the national garden.

Findings from the tested river water showed high levels of total chlorine, coliform and E. coli. Some of the pollutants are a result of a sewage leak at the waterfall that occurred on Sunday, Andrew Hankey, assistant curator at WSNBG, told Daily Maverick.

“We were not surprised that there was E. coli and coliform in the river,” said Hankey. There was a sewage leak that the municipality was trying to resolve, he said. “They tried to resolve it by putting a clamp on Sunday but we discovered the clamp was leaking and we reported it back to them. They said they would come back [on Tuesday] to put a different clamp to resolve it,” Hankey said. 

water test

Water samples were taken for testing by groups at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens. (Photo: Bruce Smyth / Outa)

He added: “It’s important to us and the ecosystem that the waterways are managed properly and kept as clean as humanly possible. We acknowledge that [the waterfall] is in an urban area and that sewer mains and leaks do occur, and for the most part, the system that we operate with our municipal agents resolves the leaks reasonably quickly and is managed very well.” 

Hankey said the river’s natural filtration system aided in clearing the water of pollutants and that it improved the water quality from the entry to the exit points of the river on the garden’s grounds. 

Dr Adam said the levels of chlorine were concerning. It showed that there was initiative in clearing the water of sewage. However, too much chlorine in water could be dangerous, she said, citing reports of a carcinogenic chlorine by-product found in Nelson Mandela Bay water.

Adam said finding such results from testing kits highlighted areas of concern about water quality and held water agents accountable. She continued that it was important in raising awareness to address the issues faced in affected communities. 

Read more in Daily Maverick:  Citizen network initiative opens criminal case against City of Johannesburg after yearlong sewage spill

When WaterCAN, an arm of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), started two years ago, it had 80 volunteers in its citizen activist network. This year it has 600 activists across all nine provinces of the country, to whom the organisation distributed more than 1,100 testing kits as part of its water testing initiative.

“The bottom line is that we cannot wait for the government to fix [the water problem] because they are not going to; they are failing dismally. This water is way too important for us to leave it to them to fix, or to get on board to fix … If we wait for the government to fix things, we are going to end up in a country where we are not going to be able to drink the water.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Critical but stable – SA’s water quality and infrastructure rated

WaterCAN’s Water Testing Week runs from 17-24 September, coinciding with World Water Monitoring Day on 18 September and World Rivers Day on 24 September. Results from the tests conducted by the volunteers will be uploaded to the organisation’s ‘Map My Water’ website, which informs citizens of the state of water across several areas in the country. 

water test

A map indicates water quality from tests conducted by citizen water activists around the country. (Map: WaterCAN)

“It’s concerning for me, because this is a botanical garden, it needs to be protected, as is the ecology. At least 60% of our river ecosystems are endangered,” said Adam.

“This is not the end; I think it’s going to get worse if we don’t start doing something on the ground to make a difference and start protecting water, fixing the infrastructure.” DM

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