Ivo Vegter
Ivo Vegter

Water: Dreaded déjà vu bug strikes

Photo by Wespionage / Wesley

“I can categorically say that we are not facing a water crisis, or a water-contamination crisis,” Lindiwe Hendricks, the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, told a media briefing in Parliament last week. “The water that comes out of our taps is among the best in the world.”

That may well be true. But who can believe her? After all, we weren’t facing an electricity crisis either, remember? Our own president told us so.

Steven Lang wrote in a damning report in October 2007 for Inter Press Service that:

Sewage plants in South Africa’s northern Gauteng province poured millions of litres of untreated waste into three rivers between the capital, Pretoria, and the commercial centre of Johannesburg earlier this month. National power utility Eskom cut electricity to the treatment plants, which were then unable to process the waste water before it was released into the rivers. […]

The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry’s Themba Khumalo attempted to downplay the gravity of the spillage [of 200-million litres of untreated sewerage from eight treatment plants into the Apies, Hennops and Pienaars rivers, which flow into the Hartebeespoort Dam]: “It is a catastrophe, but certainly not a national crisis.”

He went on to place the responsibility for averting similar crises on the shoulders of individual municipalities, saying they should negotiate directly with Eskom and tell the power utility which sanitation works should not be included in power cuts.

Ah, so it’s not a national crisis because you can shift the blame to local municipalities? Good to know.

Such problems aren’t isolated, however. In Cape Town, last month, raw sewerage overflowed into the Milnerton lagoon when the Koeberg sewerage pump was shut down. A similar thing happened near Simon’s Town. Cape Town reports having 30-odd generators, half of them fixed, to keep 395 sewerage pumps going.

According to minutes of a January 2008 meeting of the Blesbokspruit Catchment Forum, in the Vaal catchment area (PDF):

Eskom load-shedding had stalled all instrument analysis causing damage and work had to be outsourced. Erlab [the East Rand Water Care Company Laboratory] will resolve this problem as analysie [sic] for some of the important sewage works will not be done. […]

[The forum] noted again that the pump stations in the Ekurhuleni region are of major concern particularly with regards to the latest problems of load-shedding caused by Eskom. […]

All members present at the meeting agreed that the continued practice of load-shedding will have a serious and significant impact on waste-water treatments not being able to operate and meet discharge requirements.”

Ja, people, but only in the Vaal Dam, not nationally!

The problem is also not new. After the 2006 power failures, Cape Town was warned that sewerage was being pumped into the sea.

Derek Bock, chief operations officer for the Central City Improvement District, said the CCID had warned the city eight months ago that the sewage pumps were inadequate and contingency plans for such emergencies as the power cuts were unsatisfactory.

And here we are in 2008, and still they have only 30 generators?!

Not only is problem not new, it is also not superficial. The cause goes deeper than recent blackouts that caused sewerage spills or industrial contaminants in source water. Almost a decade ago, this article by Peter Wellman for the African Eye News Service documented problems with water reticulation and drinking water delivery problems, and a note was added:

It is clear that all is not well in the water supply and sanitation sector in South Africa.

A great deal was sacrificed in the interests of accelerated delivery, mainly in the form of community engagement, consumer education and a disregard for the hard-learned lessons of development from around the world.

The article particularly quotes the Director General, Mr Mike Muller, as effectively blaming the communities and consumers for the failure. However, sustainable services have not been delivered, whether the cause of failure is technical, social or financial. It is not as though these issues are new or a surprise in the South African situation. It is not as though the circumstances leading up to the failure have not been highlighted on dozens of occasions over the past few years. What is surprising is that all the warnings were not heeded.

It is a double irony and extremely cynical to blame the people for the failure.

The Mail & Guardian article, in which Minister Hendricks says “there is no crisis”, continues:

She also admitted that there has been a problem with ageing infrastructure, because no provision was made in the past for upgrading infrastructure. “Repair and refurbishment haven’t kept up,” she said.

As a result, some dams and rivers have been polluted where informal settlements have grown up on their banks. This too is being dealt with, she said, “but infrastructure construction takes time”.

What? No provision was made for upgrading infrastructure? One can safely assume, then, that water reticulation is both over-stressed and under-maintained.

I’ve lived most of my adult life in the north and north-west of Johannesburg. In just the past decade, entire landscapes have been turned into fields of ticky tacky houses stretching to the horizon. Thirty years ago, Midrand and Centurion didn’t exist, and the road between Johannesburg and Pretoria was 70km of … well, there was the Snake Park. Twenty years ago, they put up stop signs at an intersection in the back of beyond and called it Fourways. There was nothing but dark, two-lane blacktop north of Corlett Drive on the M1.

Ten years ago, a trip to the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens was a trip to the country, and driving to Kromdraai was to venture into the deep hinterland. Not so long ago, Diepsloot was little more than a small rural settlement for a few thousand families. Several hundred thousand people now live there, many moved there by the government from Alexandra township near Sandton. Roodepoort’s population grew by 50% in the past decade.

Given all this helter-skelter development, why on God’s green earth was no provision made in the past for upgrading infrastructure? True, many of the early residents of these areas are snooty mink-and-manure types, but do they not shit?

It’s not even like the municipalities had to single-handedly keep up with rampant growth and development despite stretched budgets and capacity. They didn’t have to do it all themselves. Much of the development is newly built, sold to middle- and upper-class residents. Surely a prescient city planner somewhere could have required that developers upgrade electricity, roads, sewerage and water reticulation plant before issuing planning permission? The municipalities themselves could then focus just on urban renewal, township rehabilitation and upgrading, idealistic public transport development, and pipe dreams of mixed-income integrated housing developments.

I used to laugh, proudly, at foreign visitors who arrived here with bottled water. “Rand Water makes the best tap water in the world! It’s Paris water that’ll kill an ox.”

Our tap water appears to be largely OK, for now. But there’s only so much that Rand Water and its equivalents elsewhere can do in the face of ageing infrastructure that has not been upgraded to keep up with development, and decaying power infrastructure that interrupts critical pumping and treatment facilities. This adds up to only one conclusion: buy shares in companies that make polyethylene terephthalate. That’s what water bottles are made from, and we’ll need at least 400-million of those for the 2010 World Cup.

In 2006, Thabo Mbeki told us, about electricity, that “there is no crisis”. Now Lindiwe Hendricks tells us, about water, “there is no crisis”. My question is: Why would anyone believe her?

  • Russell Main

    It’s true…We are in for a tough time re: water.

    My wife works for an Environmental Impact Consultancy – and it is SCARY when she tells me about the water problems Jozi has/is going to have.

    Did you know that companies only need to show that they have APPLIED for a water use license in order to get their EIA done. DWAF is SO FAR behind in issuing water use licenses that said company could be pumping thousands of litres of waste into rivers or using as much water as they wanted…before DWAF would even have an idea of whats really going on.

    We can get by with intermittent electricity – But not without water!! It’s Scary!!

  • Consulting Engineer

    This is what I mentioned to you a few weeks ago; sewage and water treatment would be affected by lack of power and storing such large volumes during load shedding is not an option with current infrastructure. Most treatment plants operate at full capcity due to expansion, hence cannot cope with back logs anyway.

    That sewage ends up in Hartebeestpoort dam, causing the algae problem. Algae releases a toxin not treated by conventional methods. It also clogs pumps etc.

    We should call it ANC toxic sludge.

    Then we have uncontrolled growth around dams and rivers because of ‘squatters’ rights’.

    When Pietersburg had no water for 2 weeks last year the government blamed ‘poor Apartheid engineering’. The pipes were put in during he 1950s for a much smaller town. 50 years later, well past their design life, they have been coping. The ANC should be grateful for the high quality of Apartheid engineering that the infrastructure lasted as long as it did and managed to meet the demands far in excess of original designs.

    No upgrades have been done despite the growth of the town. Rather put taps in townships to win votes then blame apartheid when no water comes from the tap.

    The Nats also put a wellfield in during the 1980s to cope with peak demands. It meets 15-30% of Pietersburg’s water demands.Recently the pumps and electrical cables were stolen. Replacement lags far behind theft, so the wellfield is at well below capacity. This makes the water shortfall worse.

    The problems lie purely due to ANC shortsightedness and incompetence.

    The sewage treatment plant is operating well above its capacity. It is old and falling apart. Expansions were given to a BEE contractor who promptly didnt deliver.

    The sewage is released into the Sand river, where it seeps into the sand to recharge the wellfield. Wellfield water recieves minimal treatment. How long before untreated sewage is released and pumped into the reticulation system?

    Another thought to ponder. Most buried pipelines operate at a positive prressure, hence they leak. When water is cut off they are under negative pressure, meaning contaminated water can leak into pipelines. How long until it comes out of your tap?

    Why do you think we have had cholera and other water borne disease since the late 1990s? I guess they will blame an ‘Apartheid Third Force’ for the ensuing diseases.

  • Claire

    Recently the kids at my son’s school have started picking up gastric bugs. You start to wonder whether it’s the water. It’s probably not, probably just some bug going around. But like you say, how can we believe anyone. Doubt creeps in everywhere.

  • Gavin 2

    Ja – while you’re talking about sewage, take a look at the thousands of fish that died in Durban harbour over Xmas. Our ANC toadie city manager Mike Sutcliffe churned out the usual crap about leaving no stone unturned in establishing which nasty factory had perperated this heinous deed. Turns out – as per the CSIR report quoted in today’s papers – that the contamination was sewage from guess who’s rapidly decaying infrastructure.

  • MFB

    The fact is that the water crisis is largely a municipal problem. Therefore, the people can deal with it much more effectively. Demand that you be taxed more to pay for better infrastructure! March to City Hall with wheelbarrows full of dosh! And call on the government to enforce the laws restraining sleazy huge development companies and the banks that finance them!

    Easy to solve the problem, actually. Just takes money and determination.

  • run Ron run

    The Duzi river in PMBurg is so contaminated from informal housing and poorly maintained sewerage works that about 50% of Duzi canoeists got Duzi guts (severe dysentary) . Race organisers worry that this will spell the end of a 50year old iconic test of strength and endurance, that has benefited communities along the banks of the Duzi and Umgeni as well as producing this years winner Michael Mbanjwa.

    What a shame, that when transformation finally brings through real black stars, ANC maladministrated infra-destuction implodes the whole event like another lead baloon

    Is there anything the ANC can’t stuff up?

    ** Ron trots off to the little house

  • http://www.thoughtleader.co.za/kanthanpillay Kanthan Pillay

    Nice one Ivo. But who is this “God” person you refer to?

  • Jon

    But, what’s the bet the ANC spokespersons will be “straining every sinew” — that odd little phrase used by Mbeki and, more recently, used by Pallo Jordan — doing the circles in the ANC these days.

    Straining every sinew, indeed! Those ANC invertebrates don’t even have any sinews to strain! Except the ones in their jawbones.

  • cool down.


    That is what you do with a running tummy!

  • http://ivo.co.za/ Ivo Vegter

    My apologies, Kanthan. I usually try to avoid such phrases, for fear of (i) offending people who recognise and respect God, (ii) offending people who don’t recognise and respect God, (iii) offending people who call God by a different name, (iv) appearing insufficiently eloquent to express myself without references to God, (v) appearing religious, and (vi) appearing irreligious.

    God knows why I broke that God-given rule this time.

  • cool down.

    Consulting Engineer

    Your comments made it again.Mine contained
    something somebody did not like and was found

  • cool down.

    MY comments are gone,not with the wind, mind you,but with the moderator.

  • Consulting Engineer


    Only water reticulation and treatment is a municapl problem. Bulk supply is not.

    Municipalities generally buy water from a bulk supplier and sometimes supplement with their own sources. For example, ERWAT, Rand Water etc are bulk suppliers. This water comes from DWAF dams etc. If water is not delivered because pumps dont work due to lack of power, or there is insufficent supply, what can municipalities do about it?

    Pretoria supplements Rand water with about 15% for its own sources: rietvlei dam and boreholes, fountains valley springs and boreholes.

    The Water law makes DWAF custodians of the water

  • Consulting Engineer

    @Cool down

    Perhaps they are load shedding comments. The white racists get shedded first. Luckily you posted first and they deleted yours instead of mine!

    What could you have said about water that is offensive? Did you bring up Black water fever? Did you question why Cholera and other diseases only came back after 1994?

    Did you ask why Water Affairs before 1994 had only 6000 employees yet did all the work themselves, but now has 27 000 and must hire consultants and contractors for everything, including maitbing national data bases?

    Did you ask why there are now over 1000 ‘directors’ and how many people they actually ‘direct’?

    Any one of these issues can be taken as ‘hate speech’ to the PC thinkers.

  • cool down.

    Consulting Engineer

    None of the above,I said nothing that deserved the
    boot.In a nutshell it came down to the fact that
    the current regime uses and abuses the infrastructure to breaking point, do very little
    preventative maintenance,thus showing little
    appreciation for the civil,mechanical,structural
    and electrical components.

    I highlighted this by saying that in my town
    grass is allowed to enter the road surfaces,causing
    severe cracking. Very little or no grass poisoning
    is undertaken.

    I concluded that you dont have to be a roads engineer to realise that the base and subbase will be eroded by water seepage and that many roads
    could have saved by timely grass poisoning and

    What is happening now is that maintenance is trimmed to have a better looking budget and free more money for salaries and allowances.

    How do I know this,well I drafted for 30 years
    the operating and capital budgets for a large
    Civil Engineering Departement,had numerous meetings
    with all types of consultants,drew up maintenance
    budgets for every imaginable facet of Engineering,
    reorganised every section,developed long and
    short term building maintenance plans.

    Handled the financial side of every type of contract,read and condensed in layman’s language
    hundreds of technical reports and submitted them
    for approval.

    I revamped the Treasury’s costing system which
    made me not their favourite son but it gave
    the desired results,so I did not care,so in short
    I honestly can say that I do know a bit of what
    I am talking about.

    But I must be honest my initial post was not in
    such mild language.

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  • JMC

    In the past four years I had to do two assignments on water for my studies. We’re in trouble, but like the Eskom fiasco, we won’t realise it until it is too late. But don’t worry, people have a right to 6kL a month with no responsibility terms and conditions attached.

    Here’s the scary fact. If all the water in the world is fitted in a 100L drum, only 3L is fresh water of which only a teaspoon is potable. Water will became the next oil, which will make Canada rich as they have fresh water coming out their ears. Apart from our water sources being messed up, South Africa is also turning into desert due to climate change.