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The blame game: Harties sewage spill

By Martin Czernowalow

Following last year’s devastating sewage spill into Hartbeespoort Dam, various government entities have denied responsibility and it seems unlikely that anyone will be held accountable.

Government officials have declined to point fingers at any particular department or entity responsible for a massive sewage spill at the Northern Works Wastewater Treatment Plant, which in turn flowed into Hartbeespoort Dam in November last year.

This despite hundreds of fish dying in the wake of millions of litres of untreated sewage having been released by the treatment plant into the Jukskei River, which links up with the Crocodile River and then flows into Hartbeespoort Dam.

While the extent of the damage caused to the dam was not immediately known in the aftermath of the spill, conservation experts say the most affected area is where the Crocodile River enters the Hartbeespoort Dam. This area is home to a large number of wading birds and returning migrant birds from the north.

The area provides a unique habitat for many species of duck and hosts groups of flamingos that have made the dam their home. Fears are that the impact of this level of pollution could destroy the entire food chain in the area, making the river virtually sterile until sufficient rain falls in the upper catchment to flush the system, which will then still take some time to recover.

In addition, the sewage spill comes at a time when South Africa is struggling to come to grips with its worst drought in decades.

However, it is unlikely that anyone will be sanctioned for the potentially catastrophic spill, even as ordinary South Africans face fines and even criminal charges for transgressing local government-imposed water restrictions. This is despite various government entities hastily passing the buck in the immediate aftermath of the spillage.

Water expert Professor Anthony Turton says it is important to understand the complexity as well as the risk of the situation, to engage in a constructive manner in resolving the problem.

“The facts of the matter are that all sewage works are hydraulically overloaded for a variety of reasons. Johannesburg North is no different. Part of the problem has been rapid urbanisation post 1994 without any planning to upgrade services,” he says.

“This will not be fixed overnight. However, another component is related to the illegal connections of gutter downpipes to the sewers. This introduces rainwater during storms that inevitably results in hydraulic overloading. This issue can be dealt with in the short term, so it must be highlighted.”

Anthony Turton-3

Return flows complexity

Turton notes that Hartebeespoort Dam is the receiving dam for a number of sewage return flows, and says there is a need to understand this complexity.

“These return flows are divided into two broad categories. Big wastewater treatment works run by municipalities, such as Percy Stewart in Krugersdorp, the smaller unit at Muldersdrift, and the massive Joburg North works, are the first. These are all overloaded, run down, and in dire need of recapitalisation. This is a municipal function.

“However, the second category is the many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of package plants owned and managed by body corporates, or managing agents acting on their behalf. This needs a different response because private sector money is involved.”

Here, says Turton, the trigger is the fiduciary responsibilities of the board of trustees, where public pressure must be brought on them to generate a register of risk in which these matters are dealt with.

“Lined to this is the risk to people living there from drinking water contaminated by sewage. Many of the large sectional title schemes around Harties do not have Rand Water, so they use boreholes contaminated by the dam water. This is a massive and growing risk, especially for pregnant mothers,” he explains.

“We need to sensitise the body corporates about this risk, because it is falling outside the formal regulatory framework. This is where the fiduciary responsibility as defined by King III and IV, applicable to all trustees, becomes the vehicle for change. In both cases, we need to improve the quality of effluent return flows and this must be regulated by the Department of Water and Sanitation.”

Turton adds that he is concerned that the Department of Water and Sanitation is so politicised under Minister Nomvula Mokonyane, that it refused to regulate ANC-controlled municipalities in the past, but might now become overzealous with DA-controlled metros.

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Depoliticise water

“This will be counterproductive in my view, because it is unfair to expect any new mayor to resolve a complex infrastructure problem that has been developing over 20 years. We must depoliticise sewage management in particular, and water resource management in general.

“In conclusion, we need to take sewage management seriously. This means that each municipality must prioritise the staffing, procurement and management of upgrades. It also suggests that a request for proposals should be considered to call for new technologies to be trialled. I am thinking here of HCA and engineered wetland technology, both of which is coming of age, and neither of which are in mainstream use because of barriers to entry by gatekeepers,” he says.

Mike Muller, adjunct professor at Wits University’s School of Governance and a fellow of the Water Institute of South Africa, says the spill highlights two problems: “There is a trend in some areas to use sewers for solid waste disposal and rubbish is frequently dumped down manholes. This causes blockages that, in turn, lead to overflows, as in this case.

“Second, in many cities and towns, infrastructure capacity has not been increased to meet new demand. This leads to overloading and spills. But in this case, it appears that Joburg Water had little spare capacity to deal with the blockages that arose, as it was actually working on upgrades at the time.”

Muller points out that because Hartbeespoort Dam lies downstream of a number of municipalities, it will always suffer the consequences of poor sanitation management and function as an indicator of what is happening upstream.

 


 

“We must depoliticise sewage management in particular, and water resource management in general.”


 

 

Denying responsibility

Following the sewage spill, the National Department of Public Works (NDPW) denied responsibility and expressed concern about the spillage, especially “as the property in question is under the custodianship of the department”.

“Joburg Water, an entity of the City of Joburg, has a municipal out-fall sewer line that crosses the [Leeuwkop] prison premises, running parallel to the Jukskei River. It is our understanding that one of the out-fall sewer lines has been decommissioned to resolve blockages in the line. This has resulted in spillages into the Jukskei River,” says NDPW spokesperson, Thami Mchunu.

Mchunu explains that two out-fall sewer lines from Bruma and Midrand areas adjoin in a sewer line passing through the Leeuwkop Prison on its way to the Northern Works Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“The departmental technical experts have been on site and have made a number of recommendations to resolve the matter together with Joburg Water,” says Mchunu.

The NDPW says it has written to Johannesburg Water and the City of Johannesburg to “treat the matter with the urgency it deserves”.

Meanwhile, Johannesburg Water is also not taking responsibility for the spill. The utility’s manager of marketing and communications, Tidimalo Chuene, says, “At this point, it is important to resist the temptation to pass the blame or focus on which department’s version of the incident is correct or not.”

Chuene explains that the Bruma out-fall runs through the Leeuwkop Prison property, along the Jukskei River, and this line is currently problematic, as blockages occurred due to sand, silt and foreign objects.

“Johannesburg Water is not the only entity responsible for sewer spillages into the Hartbeespoort Dam. City of Tshwane, Mogale City, Ekurhuleni, as well as Randfontein, contribute to pollution into the dam via the various rivers discharging into the dam,” he says.

He notes that the utility had devised a three-phased action plan, with the first phase being the removal of all unwanted obstacles from the line with hydro-jetting machines. The second phase is to use a bucket machine to remove the remaining obstacles. “This has already commenced; however, progress is slow due to the high flows in the line,” says Chuene.

 


 

“Johannesburg Water is not the only entity responsible for sewer spillages into the Hartbeespoort Dam.”


 

 

Cleaning the line

He adds that the third phase is to install a plate to block the flow in the line, which will ensure easy access for the bucket machine to remove the last portion of the sand and rags. At time of writing, Chuene said it is anticipated that the entire process of cleaning the line and limiting the spills would be completed by the middle of November.

At the Northern Works Wastewater Treatment Plant, situated near Fourways/Diepsloot, in the north of Johannesburg, Johannesburg Water was in the process of desilting an emergency retention dam to provide more capacity to store excess sewer in peak demand times.

“We have recently completed the refurbishment of the electro-mechanical equipment at the head of the works, which will improve operation and limit frequent breakdowns. We have started with the refurbishment of the electro-mechanical equipment at one of the treatment units at the works. Once completed, it will also reduce the operational failures and in turn the frequency of spills at the works,” Chuene says.

He adds that the possible hazard posed to the flora and fauna along the affected water body is regrettable and is why the utility is using all available resources to clear the affected pipelines.

Department of Water and Sanitation spokesperson Sputnik Ratau confirmed that the department investigated the spill and issued a directive to the City of Johannesburg to resolve the problem.

“There will be ongoing monitoring to ensure compliance,” he says, adding that the implications of the sewage spill are undesirable, as it leads to a reduction of water availability.

“In this instance, it has had an impact on the quality of water within Hartbeespoort Dam. In all of this, it needs to be indicated that there is no compromise to the quality of drinking water around Hartbeespoort Dam,” Ratau points out.

However, it is clear that the department is unlikely to take further action against any party in this case. “There have been sanctions by the issuing of directives to the City of Johannesburg with regard to the Leeuwkop Prison spillage, but there is also a need to recognise the fact that currently there are efforts under way to resolve this matter,” Ratau notes.

 

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