A river runs through it

2016-10-20 11:18

More thoughts on the water situation in Gauteng

I have a friend that stays in the Centurion Golf Estate. Like most other golf estates this is an upmarket development that features virtually everything one could wish for: security, various sports facilities (including the golf course), club facilities with a restaurant, hiking trails etc. Best of all is, the Sesmylspruit runs through the development, adding to the lushness and that special country feeling. A truly idyllic setting. But there is a problem, a big problem to be exact. In the past decade or so, the Sesmylspruit has been transformed from a charming little perennial river to a foaming, stinking, brown, cesspool full of floating debris and other objects. It has become a blot on the landscape. Rather than enhancing this prime development on its banks, it has become a no go area for health reasons and a real eyesore. Is this our vision of the New South Africa? Definitely not! But what has happened here?

The Sesmylspruit running strongly after the recent rains

To understand what has happened to the Sesmylspruit and most of our rivers in Gauteng we need to go back in history a bit. Thirty to forty years ago the Sesmylspruit was just a little stream that runs for a few miles before it flows into the Jukskei River. It was definitely not perennial as it is today and it was a lot cleaner than what it is today. Its catchment comprises the central part of Eastern-Gauteng, which at the time was mostly farmland and agricultural smallholdings.  Its transformation from what it was then to what it is today was largely determined by the topology of the Witwatersrand. As the city of Johannesburg and other towns in Eastern-Gauteng (such as Germiston, Kempton Park, Benoni and Boksburg) developed and grew, they relied more and more on potable water supplied by Rand Water. Rand Water, was originally founded by the then Department of Water Affairs to supply the goldmines with water – an essential raw material in the gold mining business. For this, Rand Water relied on the Vaal River as its main source. Over the years, Rand Water also supplied the municipal areas of the mining towns with their growing water needs. The cheap and reliable water supplied by Rand Water was a significant contributor to the growth and development of Gauteng.

As the various towns in the area grew they started to generate increasing volumes of sewage effluent. In those days each town comprised a separate municipality and these municipalities were responsible to treat the sewage effluent to the purified standards set by Water Affairs. But here is the interesting thing: according to the National Water Act at the time, this purified effluent had to be returned back to its original source, the Vaal River. Towns like Boksburg, Benoni, Kempton Park and parts of Johannesburg were all on the “wrong” side of the Witwatersrand and it would have been desperately expensive for these municipalities to satisfy that particular requirement of the law. So a special dispensation was obtained from the then minister of Water Affairs that this purified effluent could be released into natural watercourses that drained away from the Vaal River. The Jukskei River as well as the Sesmylspruit and Rietvlei were some of the natural watercourses used for this purpose. These watercourses are tributaries of the Crocodile River, which drains towards the east coast of our country.

Through this arrangement water is still today transferred from the western drainage area of the country (represented by the Vaal River) to the eastern drainage area of the country (represented by the Crocodile River). Initially this transfer volume was small, but as the relevant towns grew and they consumed more water, their effluent volumes grew at the same pace. Eventually, the Vaal River could not supply enough water anymore and water from Lesotho was added via the Lesotho Highlands Scheme. This meant that water was now also transferred from the Orange River to the Crocodile River. Today, one of the largest sewage treatment works situated in Eastern Gauteng is the Olifantsfontein works. This plant treats more than 100 million litres of sewage daily all of which flow into the Sesmylspruit. It is this water that has transformed the Sesmylspruit from a seasonal stream into a perennial river. That is a lot of water but it is only one quarter of the more than 400 million litres that flows into the Jukskei River from Johannesburg’s Northern Works.

But it is not only the purified effluent that has transformed rivers such as the Sesmylspruit. One of the consequences of development is increased natural run-off. Development implies buildings with roofs, it implies roads and drive ways, it implies large parking areas etc. All of these contribute to more rainwater running into our natural watercourses, via storm water drainage systems, rather than penetrating the ground. Like sewage, this rainwater runoff finds its way into the lowest natural watercourses. The result is that due to the development in its catchment area, the Sesmylspruit experiences floods like never before in its existence. A true double whammy!

This poses two key questions: (i) Is all of this bad? and (ii) Where does all this water go? My answer to the first question is: No, not necessarily. To me, this is a marvel of modern engineering that demonstrates how engineering can impact positively on peoples’ lives and facilitate development. Yes, there are certain negative environmental impacts (which I am not going to deal with here) but there are also significant social and economic positives. The positives can be gleaned from the answer to the second question. This water finds its way into the Hartebeespoort Dam. This dam was constructed in 1923 and significantly renovated in 1969 and has storage capacity of 195 million cubic meters. But, the Crocodile River in 1923 (and in 1969) was not nearly the same river it is today – just considering the 500 million litres of effluent that flows into it daily, which on an annual basis equates to the storage capacity of the dam. The result of this is twofold. Firstly, the dam can supply significantly more (more than double) water for irrigation, industrial and domestic use than what it was designed for. Secondly, the dam is not subject to normal (hydrological) droughts, as its main source (purified effluent) is relatively insensitive to drought. Anyone that is familiar with this dam will know that it is virtually in a perpetual state of overflow. Many communities and many irrigation farmers downstream from the Hartbeespoort dam are effectively insulated from drought through this phenomenon.

Why is any of this relevant? It is relevant because it demonstrates how valuable a resource sewage effluent is. Yes, you read correctly, I said sewage effluent. In any urban environment, roughly 50% of the water supplied to consumers flows back as sewage effluent. What’s more, this volume of sewage effluent is fairly steady and relatively insensitive to drought. When there is a drought and we have to cut back on water consumption, it is mostly elements of the other 50% (watering the garden, washing the car and filling the swimming pool) that we cut back on. The technology to purify sewage effluent to a high standard is well developed and relatively cheap. Such purified effluent is often at the same or even better quality than natural run off water. It is thus ready to be used as a highly reliable and secure source for irrigation, industrial water or production of potable water for domestic consumption. In a relatively dry country such as ours, sewage effluent is pure gold! The problem is, we have not been treating it like gold, quite the opposite in fact. That is exactly what the status of the Sesmylspruit and many other rivers tells us.

Poor operations and maintenance practice by the three Gauteng metros (City of Johannesburg, City of Tshwane and Ekurhuleni) have resulted in deteriorating plant performance and concomitant degradation of the quality of purified effluent discharged into our watercourses. One of the first signs of this degradation is the presence of foam on the water. Just go and look at the foam floating on the water in the Sesmylspruit for proof of this deteriorating quality. But it doesn’t stop there. A significant number of new townships (formal and informal) have sprawled up across the catchment area of the Sesmylspruit. Many of these new developments are not fully serviced for sanitation. The result is the loss and non-treatment of the sewage effluent and inappropriate disposal thereof. When a typical Gauteng thunderstorm hits, this disposed sewage waste is washed into the nearest natural watercourse and thus finds its way into the rivers. And it is not only sewage waste that finds its way into the rivers in this way. Large quantities of domestic solid waste are typically dumped into the veld (because of inadequate waste removal services by the metros) and are similarly washed into the rivers.

This combination of untreated sewage and domestic waste washing into a river contaminates both the natural run-off as well as the purified effluent discharged into it. Apart from the visual impact as well as the smell of decay the sure sign of this is the presence of algae growing in areas where the water flows slower. To me it defies all logic that significant cost is incurred to purify the effluent (although not always to standard) and then to allow it to be contaminated in this way. And that is still not all!  Poor or rather non-existent monitoring of water quality and pollution together with unscrupulous practice by certain industrialists results in large quantities of industrial waste being dumped illegally from time to time. This to is washed down with the next thunderstorm. Such industrial waste can turn a contaminated river into a toxic river. Want proof of this? This week on eNCA, the Tshwane Metro announced that they have stopped distribution of water from the Temba Water Works as the water is contaminated and not safe for human consumption. It is a combination of all these factors that has turned rivers like the Sesmylspruit into the toxic cesspool described above.

The Sesmylspruit - the gray colour of the water is certainly not natural

This is a shocking state of affairs. In any country, allowing the situation to deteriorate to this point would be criminal. Even more so in a dry and arid country such as ours. Who is to blame for this dire situation? You’ve probably guessed it by now. The previous three mayors of the metros: Parks Tau, Kgosientso Ramokgopa and Mondli Gungubele as well as their predecessors. They are the leaders who saw fit to cut critical maintenance and operations budgets so that more money was available for projects that were politically more exciting and rewarding. It is clear that the value system underlying their strategies and policies never recognised the value of water and even less so the value of sewage effluent.

But, the buck definitely does not stop with our esteemed previous mayors and their predecessors. If their value system did not recognise the importance and value of sewage effluent there is a watchdog appointed over them with one of its key objectives being exactly that. That watchdog is the national Department of Water and Sanitation, with the core task of looking after our most precious resource in this country: our water. It is clear that this department has utterly failed to properly execute its mandate by not acting in time against the culprits. It has truly failed the people of South Africa. If you need any proof of that just go and look at the Sesmylspruit today after the recent rains. This week I watched an interview of the minister Nomvula Mokonyane dealing with the drought situation. Amongst others, the minister was imploring the people of Gauteng to change their behaviour when it comes to consuming water. But of course she is wrong! It is not us the citizens that must change our behaviour, it is she and her department that must change their behaviour. They must simply start doing their jobs.

The property owners’ association of the Centurion Golf Estate is desperate to rectify the situation and get the Sesmylspruit cleaned-up. They are trying to locate the point sources of pollution in the river, so that they can take direct legal action against the offenders. It was with this in mind that my friend started the discussion about their dire situation. My view is that they are trying to do the job of the Department of Water and Sanitation. Last week my conclusion was that I am doubtful if any legal action by one of our metros against consumers transgressing the water restrictions would stand up in court. This week my conclusion is that it is time that we as ordinary citizens take action against the minister to force her and her department to do their jobs. Thus my advice to the Centurion Golf Estate is not to do the department’s job but to rather sue the minister of Water and Sanitation. It should be an open and shut case. Just take the judge to the banks of the Sesmylspruit to see for him or her self.

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