Sold waste mountain

2008-11-27 00:00

There are four sewage pump stations on the Umngeni River, between the Midmar Dam wall and Howick Falls that one or the other pump raw sewage into the uMngeni River almost every day. At the bridge, the extreme extent of the pollution is up to 13 million E-coli per 100 ml before it flows over the falls.

This situation has been going on for years without the uMngeni Municipality, Umgungundlovu District, Umgeni Water or the Department of Water Affairs alerting the public.

But the tallest sewage falls in the world are not the Howick Falls. The title goes to the discharge over a 100-metre cliff from the Howick Waste Water Treatment Works. The plant cannot cope with the volume demanded of it, and it hasn’t been able to for a long time, discharging almost five million litres of often only partially treated sewage a day into the Umngeni River.

Many depend on Howick Falls tourism for their livelihoods, so drawing the public’s attention to gross service-delivery failure that detracts from the “interior water wonderland” image of our municipality is not taken lightly. Likewise, the belated action by the Umgungundlovu District Municipality to solve the problem should not be undermined, as the new sanitation representatives have only been tasked to deal with uMngeni Municipality’s problems in the last few weeks and are not responsible for past maladministration. However, it will take time to rectify, while the moral obligation exists to safeguard our residents and environment immediately.

It is disingenuous for the uMngeni Municipality to evade responsibility by simply blaming the Umgungundlovu Municipality. The fact is that the uMngeni Municipality, on its watch, has allowed vast volumes of raw sewage to be pumped into our river system for years, at huge risk to our health and environment, without our knowledge, without our consent, without transparency and without accountability.

For years tourists have complained about scores of women washing their laundry above the falls, ruining a natural heritage site. But what they don’t know is that these women from the Shiyabazali informal settlement nearby do not have sufficient water for drinking, let alone washing. Apart from a water bowser, only two standpipe taps serve an estimated 1 500 informal homes (perhaps 8 000 people, about 10% of the entire uMngeni population).

Deprived of the basic human right to clean water, the residents of Shiyabazali are also deprived of their right to a clean environment, trapped as they are between sewage discharges on a solid waste mountain.

While the settlement is built on the old Howick dump site, tons of additional refuse have accumulated over the years. Residents say that no garbage bags are supplied and no refuse is collected by the municipality. Yet the national government provides a monthly grant per impoverished household for refuse removal. What is the uMngeni Municipality spending this money on, if not on the people of Shiyabazali?

Meanwhile, the “pristine” Umngeni Valley Nature Reserve itself is threatened. An Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife report, conducted in October, revealed an absence of fish. Six months before, yellowfish in all growth stages were in abundance. Academic reports consistently reveal a deteriorating river environment, while piles of rubbish are encountered by tourists everywhere in the Howick Falls precinct and in our rivers. All this from a municipality that won the most improved waste management systems award in last year’s “cleanest town” competition.

Within days the new Umgungundlovu sanitation team determined that, apart from the major work that is needed on the treatment works which would require millions of rands and months of work, just R500 000 per pump station will enable the screens to be automated, a back-up generator supplied and the risk to our health and environment minimised. So why was this not done years ago?

For a while an administration can get away with not spending money on maintenance, but eventually the infrastructure breaks down. For a while a community can be oblivious to what is right in front of its eyes — even as big as the tallest sewage falls in the world, on a solid waste mountain.

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