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We ignore nature at our peril — how Centurion Lake became a man-made disaster


Professor Anthony Turton is a water expert with the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State.

The air is pungent with the smell of decaying faecal matter, the fountains no longer play music, and the night shows are unable to attract the crowds that used to keep the restaurants full.

During my national water security career I had the privilege of travelling widely. I was always struck by the fact that in water-constrained countries, the very presence of water was something of great value.

Outside the military barracks in Cairo, a large water feature is clearly visible. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt derived their authority from their ability to predict the flooding of the Nile, which was associated with prosperity. Closer to home, the overwhelming presence of water at the Cascades makes the Sun City experience one to be remembered.

It was with this type of thought that I watched the high-value real estate being developed around Centurion Lake – what used to be a muddy trickle of a stream made famous by Winston Churchill who embellished his escape story by referring to the rivers he had to cross during the Anglo Boer War.

What used to be marginal land on the outskirts of Pretoria was suddenly transformed into high-value commercial real estate, all centred on a man-made lake. Musical fountains shot into the air as light displays created an air of adventure in the night sky. Restaurants were fully booked as people came to experience the wonder of Man’s control over Nature in a water-constrained country. It was truly a wonderful experience, and I lived through it all.

Then nature bit back with a vengeance.

You see, the designers were obviously not familiar with hydraulics in rivers and had based their assumptions on the absence of illegal sand mines. Every river carries a sediment load, and the velocity of the flow determines the amount of sediment that is carried. The basic principles are easy to grasp.

Centurion Lake

Centurion Lake in 2017. (Photo: Anthony Turton)

As the very small river enters the large man-made lake, two things happen. The velocity decreases and the sediment load is deposited as a result. Voila, just like that, your shallow, open lake starts to become a narrow river once again, as sediment is consolidated into islands, and natural vegetation converts these into a wetland.

This process was accelerated after illegal sand mining operations gained a foothold in the areas that feed the Olifantsfontein Wastewater Works. This is now a material factor in the dysfunction of the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company plant, along with fats, oil and grease, and of all things, clogging of the machinery by chicken feathers.

Centurion Lake is now a wetland, which was never in the designer’s mind. To make matters worse, the incoming water is heavily contaminated by sewage.

Lake Centurion has all the perfect ingredients for an experiment in solution-seeking to be conducted.

The Olifantsfontein plant is designed for 110 million litres a day, but it receives almost double, so it is unable to process the sewage. The wetland is choked by what most perceive as unsightly reeds, and the air is pungent with the smell of decaying faecal matter. 

The fountains no longer play music, and the night shows are unable to attract the crowds that used to keep the restaurants full. Centurion Lake became a man-made disaster, and politicians regarded it as a hot potato best avoided.

Mountains of sand, the byproduct of illegal mining, have to be mechanically removed, but this is complex because it is contaminated with heavy metals, so it has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Centurion Lake

Centurion Lake in 2019. (Photo: Anthony Turton)

Centurion Lake

Centurion Lake in 2024. (Photo: Anthony Turton)

A solution

We know that ingenuity happens on the cusp of chaos, so how might this sorry saga be turned around?

This shifts the spotlight onto Hennops Revival, an NGO doing amazing work, often against overwhelming odds. Let us apply our minds to possible ways that their good efforts might be supported. Let us engage in a thought experiment in solution-seeking, to cleanse our mind of the cancer of blame-apportionment. Let us create a better future by embracing the forces of nature as we transition from a linear to a circular economy.   

Let us imagine that all the commercial real estate owners unite in the face of a common challenge. Let us assume that the large corporations who are already located there are willing to follow suit. This means that a powerful special interest group can be invited to the party.

Then let us assume that those large public companies already have corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets available. All the building blocks for a successful outcome start to emerge, as three defined objectives can be quantified in financial terms.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Healing waters – a Centurion eco warrior’s journey from abuse to a mission to clean rivers

The first is the cost to the economy of illegal sand mining that creates the sediment clogging up the shallow lake. The second is the cost to the economy of releasing untreated sewage down the river. The third is the opportunity cost of doing nothing. From these three mathematically defined parameters, we can begin to quantify the benefit being conducted by any remediation in that overall system.

It all comes down to the quantification of costs and benefits in a verifiable way. This is crucial, because without the verification process, fraud will enter the system like a pathogenic virus.

Once this has been done, units of value can be linked to actual improvements in the system. With such tokens now of known value, they can be traded, and revenues can begin to flow between those directly affected, and those who have the capacity to effect change.

Instead of complaining about our water problems, let us rethink the opportunities that are all around.

Specific projects can be quantified in terms of the overall benefit they create to society as a whole. This, in turn, opens a whole new dimension to the rethinking of CSR.

What makes Lake Centurion such an interesting case study is that it has all the perfect ingredients for an experiment in solution-seeking to be conducted. More importantly, it is already home to two major corporations that have consistently been willing to put their money where their mouth is – Exxaro and OUTsurance – whose support for Hennops Revival is a matter of public record.   

This is a callout to the CSR managers in large corporations physically located around Lake Centurion: How can you get the biggest bang for your buck by investing it into rehabilitation projects that directly mitigate the risk your companies face?

This is also a callout to the commercial real estate owners, developers and landlords operating around the lake: How can you best cooperate to collectively benefit from a sustainable clean-up of the system? 

This is a callout to the municipal, provincial and government officials: How can the digitisation of the entire water value chain under your direct responsibility strengthen your regulatory roles and create different revenue streams for the funding of infrastructure maintenance?

Read more in Daily Maverick: Seeing Red: Water crisis should be SA government’s biggest priority, seminar told

And finally, this is a callout to the professionals operating in the digital twin and Internet of Things space: How can your technologies be used as a platform for the creation of a new class of fungible asset known as a tradeable water credit?

This is a good-news story, for South Africans are highly innovative people. Instead of complaining about our water problems, let us rethink the opportunities that are all around. Let us turn the Lake Centurion environmental catastrophe into a crucible of innovation, as we harness the potent energy of change, and convert it into the light of solutions, rather than the heat of anger.

The Lake Centurion problem is entirely fixable, so let us work together to figure out how it can be done, and what the future landscape will look like. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Its becoming boring to repeat this but”another ANC caused disaster”

    • Andre Louw says:

      It might well be, but this is not going to solve the problem, as Mr Turton says; Let us engage in a thought experiment in solution-seeking, to cleanse our mind of the cancer of blame-apportionment. Refreshing thought.

  • J vN says:

    The root of this disaster, the overstrained sewerage plant, is the same as the root cause of many of SA’s other problems, such as crime and unemployment.

    It is gross overpopulation. SA doesn’t have 40% unemployment; there are 40% more people, legal and illegal, than the economy or sewerage plants can support.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      “Anthony Turton served as all men did in the 1970s and 1980s as a conscripted soldier in the South African Defence Force (SADF). He was mustered as a crew commander in the Armoured Corps etc etc”

      Take your usual lies and stick them where the sun doesn’t shine. People like you are as bad – or even a way lot worse – than the people you obviously hate. You should know better, but you don’t.

    • Steve Davidson says:

      Sorry JvN, replied to the wrong post. Let me try again…

  • Tumelo Tumelo says:

    This country is truly a land of opportunity- only in South Africa does a former Apartheid Military Intelligence Officer is sort and feted for his expertise. I can’t imagine a former Nazi officer thriving as such in Israel. Astonishing.

    • Trevor Gray says:

      What a wonderful fellow you are! So adept at finding fault with an individual seeking to to resolve an issue instead of being a finger pointer which you are. Why use a non-de-plume? Who are you in real life?

      • Tumelo Tumelo says:

        Waitsi Trev, I’m sure you would prefer the readers of this publication who don’t talk about people’s involvement in crimes against humanity. However, the stench of these atrocities and the organised disrespect inflicted on the majority of this country permeates and lingers like that of the Nazi’s in Israel. Now my view is that someone who was involved in crimes against humanity should be confronted and take accountability before pontificating about matters that touch on human rights such as water.

    • Random Comment says:

      Thank you, Tumelo, for showing us exactly (and succinctly) the reasons why Centurion Lake is in the awful condition it is.

  • Gretha Erasmus says:

    Very good article

  • Marguerite Oosthuizen says:

    My very first memories are from the lake side. My mother used to work in a building next to it (as a landscape architect a little ironically) and bring me along as a baby with my nanny or one of my grandmothers. I have a handful of memories especially of the merry-go-round that was there, I was enraptured by it and under 10 months old. It must have been spectacular for it to have stayed in my mind! I live close by there now, it would be amazing if the lake became a redemption story.

  • Annette Jahnel says:

    Thank you, Mr Turton, for a well-thought-out article that avoids ‘the cancer of blame-apportionment’. Problems exist everywhere and experience has shown that it is a complete waste of time to try to hold those to blame to account. See Zuma.
    The hardest thing to change is our minds, blame shifting triggers our favourite drug dopamine, we are addicted to our victimhood. The first major step in the right direction is to catch ourselves in the act of pointing fingers and to recognise that when we do this, we are very much part of the problem.

    • Andre Louw says:

      Great comment Anette. It is good to be reminded of the total waste of time blame shifting is. It is one of our baser instincts which apart from making us feel ‘lekker’ solves no problems. I am ashamed to admit that I am often guilty of this and need to make a conscious effort not to do so.

    • Rod H MacLeod says:

      Sure, get over the blame shifting syndrome. Bravo. Now, it’s easy to talk about getting the corporates and business sectors involved to create a “sustainable solution”. Again, bravo. But how sustainable can it be? The two biggest problems facing the lake are the raw sewerage overspills and the heavy metal sands coming from the sand mining operations. Must the private sector institutions now finance an expanded sewerage treatment plant? Must they hire a private mercenary force to take on the illegal sand miners – who, in any event, share the support of many so-called “politicians” and law enforcement? By all means cut blame shifting – but be realistic. Zimbabwe was not saved by the same sentiments of community self-help – there is only so much blood you can pump into a terminally haemorrhaging patient.

  • Malcolm Dunkeld says:

    The Developers were clearly warned at the time that the lake would silt up rapidly. They ignored this advice from council officials in order to benefit from the development of the giant mall. Surely they should be forced to pay for the renovation of the lake.

  • chris butters says:

    An important ecological lesson. Sad, however, that the solutions must be argued in terms of money – inevitable, in 0ur world, and quite right of Prof. Turton, but it tells how our idea of VALUE – in this case the value of natural systems, our very basis of life – is measured in money and cost-benefit.
    Early ecological thinkers and planners, such as Patrick Geddes and Lewis Mumford, warned clearly of such consequences. More recently, some countries have enshrined the “intrinsic value of nature” into their constitutions. A contrasting example: the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, where I worked for 10 years, went so far as to close down a logging town in order to conserve their forests – in other words putting nature before economic profit. And yes, that meant losing jobs, which Bhutan could handle but few other countries would even contemplate. In that country, the Finance Ministry itself has pioneered a whole system where ecological and human values weigh at least as heavily in decision-making as money. Also emerging in many countries are radical alternatives to the world’s current exploitative and inequitable financial system.
    Money makes the world go round? On the contrary, it clogs up both our lakes, and our thinking. Solutions must go much deeper; the present exploitative financial system requires radical change. But above all, so does our sense of values, our way of being in the world.

  • John Patson says:

    Unfortunately the most logical solutions:
    *Spending heavily to upgrade the existing sewerage plant and build at least one more using the most modern (and expensive) technology which allows water to be recycled into the drinking water system, (Namibia pioneered a good system),
    *Draining the lake, removing the dam wall and letting the river be a river, are probably the most unacceptable.

    No matter how much good will is involved.
    As for turning water into a fungible asset, you do not need computers to do so.
    Simply get clean water, put it in clean containers and sell it where water is poor. It has already been invented in South Africa and nearly everywhere else where the public water supply has degraded or never got installed.

  • Cenette Dippenaar says:

    We have been involved in rehabilitating “the lake” for several years. This article provides an interesting perspective, and we would love to see this urban node restored.
    Acknowledging the contributions made by Redefine Properties and others over the years is crucial to understanding the complex context surrounding Centurion Lake. Recognizing these contributions helps provide a more balanced view of the situation and the efforts made by different stakeholders to positively impact the community and the environment.
    Many options to connect and improve the lake environment have been developed over the last two decades. A showcase of these technical solutions / options might be an interesting “next” article.

  • James Webster says:

    Why don’t they just fill the damn thing up with concrete, put a layer of earth on the concrete and plant lawn. Make a park instead of wasting millions on intellectual exercises that have little to no benefit for the community.

  • andrew farrer says:

    these pictures are not of Centurion Lake! The lake lies to the east of hendrik verwoerd drive, the pictures are of the pond next to the model boat club on the (lower) western side of the road.

  • Steve Nicol says:

    Another great insight. Thank you. However,the real problem here is the sewage from the council run WWTW. How do we get elected officials on board? If they were to care more, I reckon the momentum would carry through. Irrespective of what we think or do, without good governors, we are wasting our time.
    So, who cares? Seems like the developers don’t care enough, the patrons, the public, the public servants. . .
    I know Professor Turton cares. Henops River cares and the genuine environmentalists care. I care. But this does not carry any weight. We carers don’t have a big enough stick. The upcoming vote won’t fix this, as the same uncaring council employees will still be at their posts come June 1.
    Solution – Make individual people accountable for their actions. Criminally charge head of departments. When the spotlight is on a face of civil servants, there will be no place to hide.

  • Rodney Genricks says:

    There is nothing new about the Centurion Lake situation ot Olifantsfontein WWTWs.

    The question has to be asked why proven processes are not being applied when these are far more effective and cost effective.

    When one analysis our Power Station failures, this was directly due to the Reverse Osmosis plants failing within two years despite a fourteen year guarantee.
    You stated a research team had been established with Mitsubishi for one billion rand to address this situation. Has anything been achieved with this investment so that the filters could be self cleaning and not blocking up all the time causing the overheating.
    What is your solution to solve the current solution besides the continued funding of failures.

  • Stephen Brooks says:

    Centurion lake is what it was from inception – an effluent pit doubling as a settlement pond. How did the developers get planning approval? Why have they not been given the problem to solve? Prof Turton is giving us a vision of heaven without really telling us how to get there. Before anything else, two things are needed. There must be an additional sewage works built and if the mining cannot be stopped (no political will) there must be a settlement pond created upstream of Centurion to deposit the sand. only then than the focus be be turned to cleaning up the lake.

  • Gbone . says:

    Centurion lake is just a small scale model of what is happening to the Vaal dam and Hartebeespoort dam!

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