Howick’s river of Shame

2013-09-19 00:00

CHILDREN playing in a river of raw sewage or filling up containers of water from the contaminated Umgeni River are a common sight in Howick.

Jonathan Burton’s photographs capture this human, environmental and health disaster in the making.

In the face of no action being taken, the uMngeni Ratepayers/Residents Association (URA) has taken this on as a campaign to draw attention to the plight of the people who are forced daily to live in these unhealthy conditions. The organisation believes the contamination of people’s lives and the contamination of the Umgeni River spells catastrophe, not just for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, but the province as a whole.

For the past two years, the URA’s Tim Lindsay-White has been taking various groups on tours along the river of sewage to draw attention to the seriousness of the situation.

Lindsay-White said a two-year-old river of sewage flows in and around taps, placed by a concerned member of the neighbouring Howick West community, and past doors of the poorest of the poor. These are children, women and men who are the least prepared to counter the adverse health implications. They are already burdened with poor nutrition, poor hygiene, poor water supply, no electricity and no resources for health care.

The “river” flows from Howick South, under the N3 highway, under the reef-coast railway line, through the informal settlements of Muthandabisi and Thokoza, and is fed by Howick West and Siphumelele. The situation is compounded by the inadequate Bridge Sewage Pump Station that often spills raw sewage straight into the Umgeni River.

The URA has taken the matter to the Legal Resources Centre to look at legal options to force the municipality to rectify the situation.

Dave Still,

Chairperson of Duct

THERE’S sewage spilling into the streams and rivers of Howick again.

As the organisation formed seven years ago to champion the health of the Umgeni and Msunduzi rivers, we are asked: what is our response to that?

It is hardly a news story. It would be a news story if there was not sewage spilling into the streams and rivers somewhere in the Umgeni catchment for a change. But what have we come to when the sight of children playing in a stream that is little more than raw sewage does not evoke in us a sense of outrage?

When the lights go off, our service providers, Eskom and the local municipalities, get roundly condemned and criticised. When the taps run dry, there is all hell to pay, as protesters take to the streets. But when a sewer blocks and perforce spills into the nearest stream, who even notices?

It often takes weeks or months before the spill is dealt with. When we flush our toilets, unless the drain is blocked on our own property, we simply assume that all is dealt with as it should be, somewhere down the line, but we assume wrong.

The fact is that the main sewage pump station in Howick, the one just below the bridge over the Umgeni River, spills just about every day and has been doing so for a long time. It does this because, we are told, the pump station was in, some respects, not optimally designed, and because too many toilet users upstream find it convenient to flush things down the toilet that were never meant to go there.

Umgeni Water, on contract to the

uMgungundlovu District Municipality, clears the pump screens on a daily basis, but apparently daily is not enough. Changes to the pump station are on the drawing board — so we are reliably informed. However, given the glacial pace at which government acts, don’t hold your breath, and, meanwhile, the sewage spills.

Some 14 years ago, the relatively newly constructed Mpophomeni waste-water treatment plant was taken out of service. In its place, all that sewage was pumped over to Howick to be treated there. Whether this was indeed a smart move was debatable then and is more so now, but, for some reason, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem is, when you pump sewage over that kind of distance, it has a habit of going septic and producing acid, and acid eats concrete. Evidence of this can often be seen near Sakabula Golf Course — a stone’s throw from the passing traffic on the N3, where acid causes the concrete manholes to collapse. This results in a river of sewage spilling into the Merrivale stream that runs in front of the Merrivale garage, under the main railway line and on into the Umgeni River below the Howick Falls.

For the past four years, planning has been “in an advanced stage” to build a new, bigger and better sewage works at Mpophomeni. (Why does it take just as long to get planning authorisation to fix an environmental disaster as it does to build whatever it was that created the disaster in the first place? Our laws are very unhelpful in this regard.) Only once this is commissioned (not before 2016 at the rate things are moving) and we stop the questionable practice of pumping sewage past a previously usable treatment works to an overloaded one 10 kilometres away, will the intermittent Sakabula-Merrivale sewage stream cease to be an issue.

And, in the meantime, are our authorities in high gear to limit this environmental disaster? Are they taking emergency measures to stop it from recurring every few months? If they are, they need to do a better job of telling us about it.

But Howick is not the worst example of South African local government’s inability to keep sewage in the pipes and rubbish out. It’s not even unusually bad. A few years ago, the Amajuba Municipality in northern KZN needed to do something to improve its Green Drop score (the Department of Water Affairs’ system for scoring a water services authority’s compliance with waste water standards). One of the tasks this entailed was to upgrade the performance of their sewage pump stations. The problem was, they did not know where these pump stations were, so they hired a spotter plane and sent it up to look for tell-tale swathes of green vegetation, which marked the path of the sewage flow from the pump stations to the nearest water courses. True story, but that’s not even the worst.

An engineer acquaintance of mine was sent to a small town to assess their sewage works. When he inquired at the local municipal offices for directions to the said works, he drew a blank — no one there could tell him where to go. However, being an enterprising fellow, he followed gravity and his nose until he did, indeed, find the works, and a very surprised works supervisor reposing peacefully amid the waist-high grass. The supervisor hadn’t been visited by anyone for some time.

In Pietermaritzburg, which is much better resourced than Howick, one in three river water quality sites tested weekly by Umgeni Water show signs of serious sewage contamination, a two-fold increase over the status 10 years ago. The good news is that between Umgeni Water and the Msunduzi Municipality, some R400 million in capital expenditure has been allocated in the current three-year budget cycle to upgrading our bulk sewage conveying and treatment infrastructure, but that is only dealing with half the problem.

Until the public stops using sewers to dispose of all manner of rubbish that does not belong there, and until our councils allocate the necessary resources for the operation and maintenance of our sewer systems, the other half of the problem will persist unabated.

In South African water law, we have a principle known as “the polluter pays”, which means if you pollute a river, you are responsible for the costs of remediation. What we need is for that principle to be applied to the owners and operators of the sewer systems, our municipalities.

If our rivers are polluted with sewage, the sewer owners should be fined. A R10 000 fine for every weekly test where the E. coli level is above 10 000 per 100 millilitres would be just about right to concentrate the minds of our city fathers.

This level of penalty, on last year’s performance, would have resulted in Msunduzi paying a R3 million fine to the Department of Water Affairs. With a stick like that, maybe those responsible for neglecting to keep the sewage in the sewers would for once wake up and allocate enough resources to get the job done.

UMGUNGUNDLOVU District municipal manager Sibusiso Khuzwayo said the Umgeni sewage problem has been a key priority and this is why the municipality had applied for funding from the Dutch government.

He said that the sewerage infrastructure in the entire Umgeni area, including Mpophomeni, needs to be overhauled.

“We are aware that this is a crisis and we would have liked to move a lot faster, but there are processes, beyond our control, that have to be followed,” he said.

According to Khuzwayo, the funding has been secured from the Dutch government, as well as from the Development Bank of South Africa. He added that the project will be going ahead with more urgency as the National Department of Water Affairs is now involved. He said he is also aware of the possibility of pending litigation on the matter.

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