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Residents drinking ‘purified sewage water’

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The NGO Gariep Watch has cautioned Northern Cape communities that they are drinking ‘purified sewage water’ as water sources are contaminated with high traces of raw sewage.

The FF+ lodged a criminal complaint against Phokwane Municipality for leaking sewage that was contaminating water sources in Jan Kempdorp, Hartswater and Pampierstad in 2021. At the time, the Valspan sewage plant was not functioning at all. File picture: Supplied

NON-GOVERNMENTAL organisation Gariep Watch has cautioned Northern Cape communities that they are drinking “purified sewage water” as water sources are contaminated with high traces of raw sewage.

The co-founder of Gariep Watch, Fritz Bekker, who conducted a specialist investigation, stated that large volumes of untreated and semi-treated sewage water were being discharged into the Vaal River and the Harts River from the wastewater treatment works at Bloemhof, Christiana, Warrenton, Jan Kempdorp, Vaalharts, Riverton and Barkly West.

He pointed out that it is a criminal offence to pollute water resources.

“Several local municipalities are discharging a continuous flow of sewage water into the lower Vaal River, where communities are at high risk of contracting waterborne diseases,” said Bekker.

He stated that the municipal managers at Lekwa-Teemane (Bloemhof and Christiana), Magareng (Warrenton), Phokwane (Jan Kempdorp and Vaalharts) and Sol Plaatje (Riverton) local municipalities should be held accountable for failing to take reasonable preventative measures.

“Criminal charges were filed against the responsible municipal managers at the SAPS stations of each local municipality. Further charges will be filed with the South African Human Rights Commission, the Green Scorpions, the Department of Water and Sanitation and the Department of Health.”

Bekker added that Dikgatlong, Tsantsabane, Gamagara and Joe Morolong local municipalities were also affected by contaminated water supplies.

He warned that infected livestock and fresh produce that was irrigated with contaminated water in the Province, from the lower Vaal and lower Orange rivers, posed health risks to consumers, such as food poisoning.

“Contaminated agricultural products can carry waterborne diseases such as hepatitis A, gastroenteritis, giardia, cholera, typhoid and dysentery.

“The country stands to lose 200,000 jobs if the fruit export industry is shut down because of any pathogens on the exported products,” warned Bekker.

He indicated that 1,280 farms that produced olives, pecans, citrus, wine, cotton, wheat, maize, vegetables and grain were irrigated from the Vaalharts Dam.

“The confluence of the Vaal River and Orange River close to Douglas supplies the bulk water supply to towns such as Prieska, Groblershoop, Upington and Kakamas. It also supports an extensive agricultural industry, eco-tourism, industries, mines and aquatic ecosystems.”

He added that contaminated bulk water supplies were threatening the health and livelihoods of countless people in Kimberley and other Northern Cape communities.

“This sewage water is associated with high levels of bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, toxic trace metals and emerging pollutants such as pharmaceuticals, personal care products, flame retardants and many more. Sewage-related pollutants may include carcinogenic or mutagenic compounds and are not being tested for in the potable water supplies.”

The FF+ lodged a criminal complaint against Phokwane Municipality for leaking sewage that was contaminating water sources in Jan Kempdorp, Hartswater and Pampierstad in 2021. File picture: Supplied

Bekker indicated that there were elevated levels of contamination in Kimberley’s bulk water supply.

He stated that untreated sewage water was mixing with backwash water from the Riverton wastewater treatment plant before it entered the Vaal River.

“The water quality results show significant bacteriological contamination, especially at the Riverton canal discharge locality.”

He added that E coli values in excess of 130 cfu (colony-forming units) were detected throughout the lower Vaal River.

“There should be zero E coli in drinking water and the irrigation guidelines are set at less than one colony-forming unit of E coli per 100 millilitres of water.

“The water coming from the Bloemhof Dam is highly contaminated after raw sewage contributions from Bloemhof, Christiana and Warrenton upstream from the Riverton water purification plant.”

He identified dysfunctional wastewater treatment plants, as well as sewage lines and manhole leaks, as the major causes of contamination.

“Sewage treatment infrastructure at various local municipalities is not being maintained or operated by knowledgeable personnel. Some state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants are simply being abandoned, with raw sewage flowing through them towards the river.”

Bekker added that research showed an alarming increase in diarrhoea cases at a provincial hospital in Upington whenever the Vaal River became flooded.

“People consume contaminated water from the irrigation canals, directly from the river or from the potable water supply as the municipality is unable to effectively treat potable water supplies.”

He indicated that more than 80 people, of which 25 were children under the age of five, were admitted on one day after contracting diarrhoea when there was a high Vaal River flow.

Sol Plaatje Municipality spokesperson Thoko Riet said that while the quality of the Vaal River water had deteriorated due to pollution inputs from its catchment area, the municipal water complied with the South African National Standards (SANS 241).

“Purified water is tested and submitted to the national Department of Water and Sanitation. Sewage spillages are attended to as and when they occur or are identified,” said Riet.

She added that as Sol Plaatje Municipality abstracted raw water from the Vaal River at Riverton, there were no direct sewage disposal points at the abstraction point.

Riet stated that Transnet had commissioned a project to abstract water from Kamfers Dam to reduce the overflow along the N12.

“The water is diverted back to Homevale, then pumped into the Vaal River, downstream of Riverton. The project is ongoing until safe levels are reached at the N12.”

The chief director of communications and advocacy at the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), Albi Modise, said 13 municipalities were presently under investigation in relation to offences related to causing harm to the environment in terms of the National Environmental Management Act.

“The Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment is not in a position to provide details of active investigations ahead of issuing notices,” said Modise.

He added that water samples were taken by the Green Scorpions at different “crime scenes” as part of the investigation process.

“The samples are sent for analysis at different laboratories. This evidence assists in proving the harm caused to the environment. However, in relation to the water quality of towns, this mandate belongs to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).”

Modise stated that DWS was the authority responsible for the country’s water resources, wastewater management and sanitation as well as the water quality of towns.

Umsobomvu Municipality was issued with a R10 million fine that was suspended for five years after a farmer in Noupoort reported raw sewage spillages from the Eurekaville pump station.

Modise indicated that one of the conditions attached to the plea and sentence agreement was that water samples would be tested from the boreholes that supplied Noupoort with drinking water by an accredited laboratory.

“The results must be submitted to the DFFE, who will in turn share the results with DWS, who will be responsible for taking action should the results indicate challenges with the water quality.”

He stated that the National Prosecuting Authority should be approached for comment regarding what steps would be taken in the event that an errant municipality did not have funds to pay a fine.

Department of Water and Sanitation spokesperson Amogelang Moholoeng said eight communities were investigated for pollution incidents.

“Municipalities of the eight communities were issued with directives to rectify pollution in their area of operation in the river system. Administrative enforcement, rectification and corrective measures were taken. Improvement, financial and technical support is rendered through the Green Drop programme,” said Moholoeng.

He stated that raw water from the Orange and Vaal river systems was not safe for human consumption although it was suitable for irrigation and other uses.

“That is why water is treated at water treatment works to ensure safe drinking water quality. Drinking water is safe when treated and municipalities comply with the Blue Drop best practice programme.

“The Department of Water and Sanitation strives to protect raw water in rivers by limiting pollution and maintaining water quality with set water resource objectives.”

The FF+ lodged a criminal complaint against Phokwane Municipality for leaking sewage that was contaminating water sources in Jan Kempdorp, Hartswater and Pampierstad in 2021. File picture: Supplied
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