Vaal sewage crisis left hanging due to lack of funds

South African troops have suspended work to rehabilitate the water system that serves the nation’s richest province because of a lack of funds.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the sewage problem in the Vaal River system a national crisis in October last year and authorised the deployment of the South African National Defence Force to intervene because the local municipality failed to fix it, said Colonel Andries Mokoena Mahapa, who led the troops.

Many municipalities in South Africa are mismanaged and struggle to provide basic services such as water. Just 8% of 257 audited municipalities received a clean audit, according to the Auditor-General’s office.

The SANDF stopped its refurbishment and maintenance work in June because it needs about R1.1bn - money it doesn’t have - to complete the project, Mahapa said in an opinion piece in the Johannesburg-based Star newspaper.

Raw sewage is flowing into the system from pump stations in the Emfuleni municipality on the northern bank of the Vaal River. It’s posing health risks to communities in Vereeniging, Sebokeng, Boipatong and Sharpeville in the southern part of Gauteng - a province that includes the economic hub of Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria.

While troops were able to curb vandalism and the theft of pumping instruments and electrical equipment, the army needs to outsource parts of the project, for which more funding is required, Mahapa said. It’s currently only protecting installations. The national Department of Water and Sanitation in March set up a steering committee to tackle the issue, but it has to follow distinct procurement processes for funding and expertise, he said.

Raw effluent 

“Since then, there has been neither maintenance nor refurbishment and the e-coli levels into the Vaal River have spiraled upwards because the raw untreated effluent is being allowed straight into the river system’s various catchments,” Mahapa said.

The Vaal River system comprises 14 dams, one of which is the Vaal, which supplies Gauteng, South Africa’s most-populous province.

“The situation is so bad - this is a national crisis,” Bheki Ntsele, a member of the mayoral committee for basic services, said in an interview on broadcaster eNCA Friday. “In six months’ time, the situation will be different. The supply-chain processes are kicking in. The municipality has not stopped working and we’re trying to unblock whatever we can unblock.”

The situation will get worse before it gets better because of the procurement processes that have to be followed, Mahapa said. The Department of Water and Sanitation will need to outsource functions to the Ekurhuleni Water Care because it has the technical skills to resolve the crisis, he said.

Last year, the Emfuleni municipality, which is part of Gauteng, had all of its vehicles repossessed by Bidvest [JSE:BVT], civil society group the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse said on Wednesday. Emfuleni lost the vehicles for its traffic, water, electricity and fire departments.

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