Clean up rivers 'or else'

2008-06-05 00:00

Local authorities have been warned to “get their house in order” and prevent river pollution or face prosecution. Lin Gravelet-Blondin, deputy director: water quality management for the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Dwaf), issued this warning to Msunduzi municipal staff at a recent strategic management workshop organised by Dwaf to address the crisis in water quality in local rivers and clarify the functions of the role players involved. It was attended by officials from Umgeni Water, Msunduzi Municipality, Dwaf and the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct). The problem of river water quality caught public attention during this year’s Hansa Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon when 45% of participants became ill.

Gravelet-Blondin said: “Sewage in rivers and general water quality are issues in the public eye now. The message we want to send to municipalities is ‘Do what you are supposed to be doing’. The Department is moving from a support mode to a regulatory and compliance monitoring mode. We are drawing up protocols to enforce the requirements of the Water Act.”

Speaking at the same workshop, city manager Rob Haswell told participants that “the levels of E. coli [in the Duzi river] are unacceptable throughout the year and throughout the municipal area”. He was responding to an Umgeni Water presentation showing the results of water quality monitoring done at 18 different monitoring points in the Msunduzi catchment over the last 18 years. The test results presented showed unacceptably high levels of faecal pollution (measured as E. coli) in certain “pollution hot spots” in the river, particularly after heavy rain storms. The city’s old and damaged sewer system is recognised as the major cause of this type of river pollution. The city is reportedly also known to have the highest infiltration rate — the rate of water entering sewers — in the country.

River scientist and environmental consultant Dr Mark Graham has said that “what happens to the inadequate sewage system when there is a heavy storm is like expecting the old R103 road to carry the traffic that uses the N3 highway during peak holiday season”.

Brenden Sivparsad, who manages the municipality’s sewer maintenance teams, highlighted the work the municipality is doing to maintain and upgrade its sewer network (which incorporates 1 500 km of sewers and 14 pump stations). About 60% or 900 km of the sewer system is more than 40 years old. Studies indicate that about 20% of the system needs to be replaced. The municipality currently replaces about two kilometres of old or damaged sewer pipes a year.

Sivparsad described the problems the sub-unit faces in trying to do its part in cleaning up local rivers. The biggest of these are lack of skilled personnel, inadequate and aging equipment and budget constraints. He explained that the department has five sewer inspectors, making them each responsible for about 300 km of sewer pipes. There are 46 vacancies in the sub-unit, which represents nearly 40% of its staff. He also questioned whether 120 people were enough to manage the city’s current sewer infrastructure, which is also growing by about 0,5% or 30 km per financial year.

Sivparsad’s presentation demonstrated that the sub-unit’s most important specialised vehicles are all 15 years old or older, including the vacuum tankers or honeysuckers that empty sewage storage tanks and the vehicle that houses the CCTV system used to inspect sewer pipes. He also said that the way the department is currently structured and managed is a challenge, because it is very reactive and has little flexibility or emphasis on planned maintenance. It is also not designed to cater for the existing and future growth in the city’s sewer infrastructure, as new areas are developed and serviced.

Haswell said that municipalities all over the world have difficulties with procurement, or obtaining the goods and services they require. He challenged the municipal officials present and said: “There’s no quick fix to this problem, it has to be tackled on a systematic basis. Let’s do the best we can to solve the problems we have. Hire the vehicles you need or outsource. Come to me with a plan to fill the empty posts.”

Dave Still, chairman of Duct, said: “We are greatly encouraged that the municipal manager has taken the time to gain a deeper understanding of the situation of Maritzburg’s sewer maintenance. He seems willing to act. This willingness must be translated into better resources for the teams who do this task, without which the current negative trend will continue. We don’t expect miracles overnight, but we do want to see a change for the better and a positive trend in river water quality. It will probably take 10 years really to clean our rivers up — all the more reason to start now.”

***

In an update on the municipality’s efforts to clean up the Duzi by sorting out the city’s storm and waste water systems, municipal strategic executive manager: infrastructure services and facilities, Philemon Mashoko, said the programme to extend sanitation services to unserviced areas is going well in Vulindlela and Edendale.

“Since 2005 we have constructed 8 000 ventilated improved pit latrines (VIPs) and we are currently constructing about 700 a month at a cost of R3 million. Consultants have been appointed to design sewer networks to connect 400 households in Vulindlela to the sewerage system. An application for municipal infrastructure grant (MIG) funding is under way.

“A business plan to apply for MIG funding to provide waterborne sanitation in Ambleton is also under way. This is a huge project estimated to be worth R100 million. Vehicles to meet our critical needs are being procured and we have appointed an assistant chief building inspector responsible for building inspectors who inspect properties to ensure proper waste water management.”

The municipality is still trying to find another sewer inspector, after a prospective appointee rejected its offer, and procurement problems have delayed an MIG-funded programme to assess the condition of the city’s sewers. A contract for the assessment was awarded some months ago but an unsuccessful contractor objected, which has caused the delay.

The municipality is obliged to follow due processes to resolve the matter.

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