Threat to Midmar

2011-06-03 00:00

MIDMAR Dam may become a stinking pool of sewage if a new housing development nearby is allowed to go ahead, says Rob McCarthy, a fiery environmental lawyer, who has fought this development tooth and nail.

McCarthy has been watching the plans for Khayelisha become reality with ground being broken recently to lay foundations for the low-cost houses planned by uMgungundlovu Municipality, 300 metres from the shore of the fresh-water dam.

Environmental experts, as well as the Department of Water Affairs have expressed grave concerns about the future of the wetlands surrounding the dam, and, more importantly, say that the development could poison the main water supply, affecting towns downstream like Howick and the greater Pietermaritzburg area.

If Midmar becomes polluted, events like the Midmar Mile, which attracts visitors to the dam and injects income into the local economy, will be severely compromised. Leisure activities centred around the Midlands Meander will also be negatively affected.

McCarthy, who grew up enjoying the beauty of the dam, is horrified by the unfolding disaster. He says poor water and sanitation management of the nearby township of Mpophomeni has already caused significant sewage seepage into the dam.

Drains are blocked, rubbish has been thrown into manholes and broken sewerage pipes have been left unattended. This is all due to poor maintenance by uMngeni Municipality.

Mpophomeni is two kilometres from Midmar, and the filth is carried to the dam by a small tributary. “This second housing development will cause complete and utter devastation of the fauna and flora — and that is not just what I think — the environmentalists said it in their report,” said McCarthy.

The Khayelisha site was chosen from one of several sites, reportedly because the municipality wishes to utilise and extend the existing sewerage infrastructure.

McCarthy alleges the land (Hollywood Farm) is also contentious as it belonged to a former politician, who never went through official tender processes when he sold it to the Department of Housing.

Dr Mark Graham, a scientist working for GroundTruth, an environmental consultancy, told The Witness that an environmental assessment impact (EIA) was done as part of the process.

“The Department of Water Affairs [DWA] gave the go-ahead, but with very stringent conditions imposed, which were put into the Record of Decision [RoD].

He said: “Construction work has begun on the site, but the RoD issues have not been met. If we look at other areas like Mpophomeni, which is adjacent to Khayelisha, and in the same catchment area, there is a poor record of environmental management, and there is ongoing faecal and nutrient pollution into Midmar Dam.”

KwaZulu-Natal Department of Water Affairs acting director Manisha Maharaj, said they would be constantly monitoring the water-catchment areas to see if the development would negatively affect Midmar Dam.

She said: “Although the DWA supports uMngeni Municipality’s efforts to supply low-cost housing, we do not support its choice of location. Other locations downstream of Midmar would have been more suitable.”

Research has shown Mpophomeni contributes almost 51% of the E. coli loads that are found in Midmar Dam. The sewage also increases the concentration of phosphates in Midmar Dam causing the development of blue-green algae, which has devastated other dams like Hartebeespoort Dam (see box).

uMgungundlovu Municipal Manager Sibusiso Khuzwayo gave his side of the story to The Witness.

“Development of this nature is the outcome of an intensive community participation. Community needs are articulated and expressed. A social, environmental and technical assessment is performed to assist communities to make informed choices. The site location is the culmination of a long-winded process.”

Khuzwayo admitted there was a need for the entire uMngeni sanitation and sewerage system to be upgraded. “We have just completed our Water Services Development Plan and quantified all the new capital works and upgrades to be done over the next five years.

“Then a systematic but comprehensive process to respond to the water services issues will roll out on a phased implementation basis.”

Khuzwayo denied that housing got more priority than water and environmental affairs. “We have a legal and moral obligation to uphold the environment health of all areas in our jurisdiction. But housing is also a priority, from the uMngeni Municipality’s point of view. We therefore have a constitutional obligation to support one another as organs of state.”

Khuzwayo agreed they were currently experiencing a staff problem in the water and sanitation department. He said: “We have increased our capacity through maintenance contracts from the private sector, as well as the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA). With the re-constitution of the new council, the freezing of posts will be revisited.”

“The Department of Water has created a support-funding programme to help municipalities pay for upgrades. DWA’s Manisha Maharaj said R75 million had been allocated for the next three years and was prioritised for municipalities like uMngeni.”

But McCarthy remains unconvinced that the district municipality or the DWA will be able to prevent a disaster from happening.

“It’s a time bomb waiting to explode! We’ll all be buying drinking water — how will the poor afford that?”



ACCORDING to Dr Mark Graham, phosphate loading of water sources is the primary cause of eutrophication of water in which blue-green algae multiplies, producing a serious toxin known as cyanotoxin, which has been linked to neurological disorders. The Hartebeespoort Dam experience has shown that under extreme conditions, the water becomes extremely difficult to treat for drinking water. Many of South Africa’s water resources are already polluted by this algae.

Scientists have established that these cyanotoxins can be linked to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. People and animals that are exposed to these at low doses over a long time suffer from nerve and liver damage.

High phosphate loads were detected in 2006 on satellite images of Mpophomeni on Google Earth.




DUZI uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) volunteer, Liz Taylor, who along with other team members, carries out water-quality tests, said there are many contributing factors to the deterioration of the uMngeni municipal water and sanitation services.

• Water purification systems need to be upgraded, especially outlying water pumps that break down regularly after rain storms. The estimated cost of this would be R25 million for the uMngeni area.

• The recruitment of plumbing staff. There are allegedly only 18 qualified plumbers on the municipal payroll due to a wage dispute created by the previous administration. No new staff can be hired until this is resolved. There are 62 open vacancies in the sanitation department.

• Due to a manpower shortage, broken pipes and sewage spills cannot be attended to, and the end result is filth and poor hygiene.

• Informal settlements and townships have no access to regular refuse removal and no landfill or dumping site near their homes. Consequently, they resort to burning their rubbish or leaving it in the street, where it gets washed into the rivers by rain storms.


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