South Africa: Polluted Vaal River Finally a Focus of National Government

A view of the Vaal River from Aasvoelkop in 2010.
10 February 2020
Vaal River Intervention
press release

Minister and Parliamentary Portfolio Get their Feet Wet

The sewage crisis that has been plaguing the Vaal River system is now a focus of national Government.

On Tuesday February 4th 2020 Minister of Human Settlements Water and Sanitation Lindiwe Sisulu visited the Vaal River, travelling on a commercial cruiser from Stonehaven on Vaal to the barrage, and then on a smaller boat through Loch Vaal and up the Rietspruit, the source of much of the pollution currently plaguing the river.

On Thursday February 6 2020 the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee for Human Settlements Water and Sanitation also travelled on smaller boats from the Vaal Barrage to Loch Vaal and up the Rietspruit.

Both visits were hosted by the Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce and Save the Vaal Environment, entities which have been fighting for recognition of the crisis for many years.

The Minister was accompanied by the Mayors of Sedibeng and Emfuleni, members of the respective Municipal Councils and a representative of ERWAT, the entity contracted to clean up the river. This was her fourth visit to the Vaal Triangle in two weeks. It is the first time a Government Minister or members of a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee have ever travelled on the Vaal River in order to assess the damage caused by Emfuleni's failing sewage infrastructure.

The Minister described the visit as an "eye-opener."  She was concerned at the proliferation of toxic blue-green algae on the surface of the water, the poor water quality and the depth of the sewage sludge which has made parts of Loch Vaal virtually unnavigable. SAVE committee member Michael Gaade pointed out to her that the pollution was due in large part to the partial or non-operation of the 44 pump stations and 3 waste water treatment works which are discharging raw or partially treated sewage into the river at numerous points. There has also been a proliferation of informal and even some formal housing in the vicinity of the Klipspruit and the Rietspruit, without any sewage infrastructure at all.

Minister Sisulu commented favourably on the partnership which has been established between members of the community, organised business, NGOs such as SAVE and the Government and ERWAT, with a view to cleaning up the river and renewing the infrastructure, thereby creating jobs and laying the foundation for further development on the Vaal. She was impressed by a scheme devised by local businesswoman Rosemary Anderson to use treated sewage water for agricultural purposes.

The Minister said that her Human Settlements portfolio was seriously hindered by the fact that the current infrastructure was not designed to carry the exponential growth of the population in urban areas. The slow pace of progress also had a direct negative impact on the construction industry, a large creator of jobs, which is also of serious concern to the Government.

Minister Sisulu said the visit had made the situation clearer to her, and she promised to put the matter before Cabinet because she understood that there were large cost implications. Her intention is to fast track township development with the correct bulk infrastructure in order to prevent a similar situation occurring again.

Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce member Rosemary Anderson said that she was impressed by the Minister's determination to understand the situation on the ground.

"We are grateful that Minister Sisulu has shown such interest which has been demonstrated by her unparalleled actions of visiting the Vaal numerous times in a matter of weeks and being the first Minister to take the time and trouble to spend many hours on the Vaal River itself, personally inspecting the quality of the water and the causes which have contributed to its current state.  This brings us tremendous hope that we now have a Minister who will finally put an end to the current trajectory of the Vaal River's demise and then go on to address the similar problems plaguing many other water sources in our country."

Michael Gaade of SAVE said "The interest shown and the activity by the Minister reinforces SAVE's decision to pend the litigation against various Government entities as long as good progress is made in fixing the sewage infrastructure."

Legal framework requires strengthening for synergy and efficiency

The Portfolio Committee said in a statement that the broader solution to the problem was two-fold - improved legislative framework governing water infrastructure and dealing with operational and maintenance backlogs.

"The amendment of the two primary legislations, the Water Services Act and National Water Act, is now pressing. We are of the view that the current legal framework must be strengthened to make it more effective," Committee Chairperson Machwene Semenya said.

Directives by the Department to municipalities - the source of the pollution - were not working, the Committee said, which resulted in the need to reconsider the licensing of municipalities that were failing to run wastewater treatment plants.

"We support the Government initiative to clean up the Vaal River. We intend to motivate for further allocation of Government funding to address the situation," Ms Semenya concluded.

ENDS

Issued on behalf of Viccy Baker for the SAVE and Vaal River Intervention Project.

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