South Africa

Vaal River Pollution: More money, more time needed to fix contamination in river system

On Wednesday the South African Human Rights Commission held its last sitting of the inquiry of the contamination of the Vaal River. The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) were among the stakeholders called in to present and update the commission on the progress made after they were ordered to intervene by the finance minister in 2018, amid concerns around funding for the project.

It's been four months since army personnel began working on water infrastructure in the Vaal region but concern has been raised that there is not enough money to complete the job. Save the Vaal Environment’s (SAVE) vice-chairperson, Maureen Stewart said: “Our concern is that the sanitation team is under-resourced and they are not able to do all the maintenances that are required on this ageing structure. And as a result of this, raw sewage continues to pour into the Vaal River.” The sanitation team that Stewart refers too is made up of personnel from the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Emfuleni Municipality, Department of Water and Sanitation, and Gauteng Corporate Government and Traditional Affairs. She was speaking to Daily Maverick on the eve of the last sitting of the SA Human Rights Commission inquiry into the contamination of the Vaal River system and failing water infrastructure for the region on Wednesday. The sanitation team was deployed after Finance Minister Tito Mboweni's announcement during his mid-term Budget speech in October last year that money would be made available for the army to be deployed to the Vaal River catchment area to deal with the contamination. As a result operation Vaal River commenced on 25 November 2018. Initially, R20-million was made available to fix 46 pump stations in the area. But, according to Sibusiso Mthembu, provincial director of the Department of Water and Sanitation, “after an assessment that was done by the task team, they came to the conclusion that R20-million will effectively refurbish five pump stations”. He said the department has had to reprioritise some projects so that additional funds could be made available for the intervention. To date, we have tentatively made available R240-million towards the intervention. We are just busy with the formalities in terms of the paperwork so that work does not stop. We do have R240-million between now and the next financial year,” Mthembu said. Presenting an update of work done to the commission on Wednesday, SANDF Colonel Andries Mahapa, head of the sanitation team said after they assessed the infrastructure in the area, the team agreed that Sebokeng Waste Water Treatment Plant and four pump stations which channel into the plant would be prioritised as it was in the worst condition, had only one of its three modules operational and served a large population. When we arrived, there was only one module working, which is module 3a. Module 3b which we refer to as a primary settling tank, when we arrived, was full to capacity (sic), in terms of the skunk and the sludge. So as the defence force, using our construction equipment, we did what we could do with our capabilities. It took us six to seven weeks to clean and jet the lines of the module. As we speak now, that module is 100% clean,” Mahapa said. Mahapa told the commission that there were many factors contributing to the poor state of infrastructure in the area with a key factor being Emfuleni municipality’s failure to do proper maintenance. Another factor was theft and vandalism of infrastructure allegedly committed by community members. If the infrastructure at Sebokeng Water Treatment Plant was maintained on a regular basis, I don’t think we’d be sitting where we are today,” Mahapa said. But the water problems in the area don't stop at treatment plants. The Vaal River itself is highly contaminated. At Wednesday's hearing Sasol and Arcelor Mittal South Africa were identified as possible polluters. A whistle-blower from Sasol, who cannot be named, and who had been an employee of Sasol for 15 years told the commission of alleged illicit activities unfolding at Sasol. He claimed that the company's Secunda Plant in Mpumalanga was responsible for pumping hazardous chemicals such as Vanadium into the Vaal River catchment area. He said that when he tried to raise the alarm about this he was harassed, threatened, abused, was suspended and then when returned to work, demoted. At an earlier sitting of the inquiry in November, Sasol denied any wrongdoing. According to the commission the company now has a chance to rebut the whistle-blower's version in a written submission. Arcelor Mittal denied that they were pumping any hazardous chemicals from their plant into the Vaal River. Meanwhile, Mahapa said the sanitation team, which was originally deployed until December 2019, had set March 2020 as the new end date for the completion of the project. I am making an assumption that by March 2020, we should have addressed 90% of the challenges. The 10% will form part of the sustainment and maintenance of the intervention, because it will be fruitless for us to do everything and when we go back to the base then the infrastructure collapses,” said Mahapa. DM While oral hearings have been completed the commission was still accepting written submissions until 28 February 2019

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