Flow of raw sewage into Vaal River a violation of human rights, SAHRC rules

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DWS releases water from Vaal Dam in anticipation of expected rainfall
DWS releases water from Vaal Dam in anticipation of expected rainfall
Supplied: DWS
  • The SA Human Rights Commission launched an inquiry into the state of wastewater treatment in the Vaal River. 
  • This was after several reports over the years of raw sewage flowing into homes and streets in the Emfuleni local municipality.
  • The commission found that the lack of wastewater treatment was a violation of several human rights and gave government 60 days to respond. 

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has given various government stakeholders 60 days to respond after it ruled that the continued flow of raw sewage in the Vaal and homes and public areas in the Emfuleni local municipality was a violation of human rights. 

The commission released its findings on Wednesday.

It had looked into the state of wastewater treatment in the area following several reports of raw sewage flowing into the Vaal River - which affected the drinking water of 45% of Gauteng's population - as well as in people's homes and the streets.

"The commission found that the impact of the discharge, occurring over more than five years at the time of writing, violated a number of constitutional rights which includes the rights to: human dignity, freedom and security of the person, an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being, not to be deprived of property, health care, food, water and social security, just administrative action and the rights of children to be protected from maltreatment and degradation," read its report. 

The commission gathered oral and written evidence from parties, including the municipality, the ratepayers association and the departments of water and sanitation and provincial treasury.

The commission said it was concerned by the lack of accountability mechanisms used by the national department to address the problem.

"Despite having the ability to do so, it did not appear to the commission that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) had been able to hold the municipality accountable for causing sewage pollution as required in terms of section 19 of the National Water Act 36 of 1998 and section 28(2) of the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998," said the commission.

The commission found that this lack of accountability also extended to service providers who did not deliver on work they were contracted to do.  

"The municipality did not provide any evidence of termination and claim for breach where service providers did not deliver. This amounted to another avenue of wastage of resources."


Apart from the effects the lack of wastewater treatment had on people, the commission also found that the pollution was impacting natural ecosystems that were dependent on the water in the Vaal.

"The population of Yellow fish peculiar to a few South African rivers such as the Vaal are under threat of extinction on account of the change to the balance of river flora and other competing species in the river caused by pollution of the Vaal. In addition, livestock which consumes water from the Vaal and direct human consumption itself adversely impacts the health of consumers."


The commission recommended that Cabinet take a decision for national government to intervene in the running of the Emfuleni local municipality.

"The failure to repair and replace the sewerage systems of the municipality is not only a failure to comply with the WSA [Water Services Act], but it is also a failure of many people over many years to properly run the municipality. Wastewater systems will be needed for many years to come. It is therefore recommended that the intervention not be a reactionary one, but an intervention with the purpose of establishing long term, implementable frameworks for the maintenance, repair and replacement of wastewater systems.

Other recommendations in the report are:

  • That in the short term that DWS or Gauteng Cogta, together with experienced wastewater management specialists, and respective Treasury departments draw up a cost-effective interim plan to urgently stop or limit the flow of sewage in the streets and homes of people living in the Emfuleni area and also into the Vaal.
  • That the DWS collaborate with DEFF and use the inspectors provided for in NEMA [National Environmental Management Act] to investigate offences relating to water and sanitation, as they are likely to relate environmental damage.
  • That municipal councils develop mechanisms to interact with communities and identify service needs and priorities. Without the capacity to strategise, integrate and interface with non-municipal groups, many local governments are unlikely to be sustainable in the future. 
  • That regular inspections of the Vaal and regular meetings to report on all of the above take place between respondents and the commission; and that National Treasury allocate the funds required to give effect to the recommendation.

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