Looming sewage catastrophe

Effluent pumped into waterways poses ‘real danger’ to health, warns Dr Jo Barnes, dubbed the Erin Brockovich of South Africa.

In between worrying about Eskom, junk status and David Mabuza, spare a thought for just one more thing: the state of the country’s rivers. In a word, it’s dire. South Africa’s rivers are being polluted on a massive scale, with billions of litres of sewage discharged into the rivers every day. This is largely due to the fact that close to 80% of the 825 municipal sewerage treatment works are dysfunctional and have been for a long time.

Dr Jo Barnes

One person who’s been trying to do something about this for years is Dr Jo Barnes, an award-winning researcher into water pollution, sanitation and water-related diseases. For more than 20 years, she has been trying to get municipal and other authorities to take note of the growing crisis affecting our rivers and the potential public health risk this poses. But the former senior lecturer in Community Health at Stellenbosch University – now retired but still working as a water consultant – has had little luck and, through the years, has even faced active measures to shut her up.

“The municipalities, the City [of Cape Town], the Department of Water Affairs – they’ve all tried to shut me up, but I’m an obstinate old bird,” Barnes told Noseweek, when we met in Somerset West, where she lives with a Maine Coon cat called Megabyte and a garden full of birds and squirrels. It was an unbearably hot day, even in the air-conditioning of Somerset West’s Lord Charles Hotel, where we met. We drank endless glasses of iced water. Asked to comment on the state of the country’s rivers, Barnes replied: “It’s sewage, sewage and sewage.

“I don’t have words to tell you how bad it is. Sewage is an unromantic and unpopular topic but it’s presenting a very real danger. People in the towns and cities don’t realise this, as it is taken away by the rivers.

“Every sewage treatment works is built close to a river because the effluent – which is meant to be clean – is returned to nature. That, by definition, is how they work all over the world. But, what is happening in many of these treatment works is that the poorly treated effluent is being pumped into the rivers.

“People think the environment is something outside of town but the quality of the water we use affects everything from the quality of our food to our health and the economy. Many industrial processes just cannot happen with dirty water. And, of course, if our environment collapses, how do we get it back?”

“About 10%-15%” of South Africa’s sewerage works are doing well; a small few are functioning 'reasonably', but close to 80% are dysfunctional and spewing sewage into the natural environment.

“If more than half of 825 sewerage works are dysfunctional – that’s a massive amount of sewage.

“I don’t have words to tell you how important this issue is but it’s underestimated severely by the ordinary folk who understandably have other things to worry about at the moment. They don’t realise how South Africa’s poor economy will make things much worse, as there is not enough money to go around to pay all the rates and taxes so services will deteriorate. These things are interlinked.

“What I am really concerned about is massive outbreaks of disease [as a result of filthy rivers]. Being in the field of community health, I am deeply worried about this. It could knock the economy, knock the health budget and our health system is already falling apart. The knock-on effects would be huge – and we are setting ourselves up for it.

“And, as we sit here sweltering and it becomes dryer and hotter, we desperately need all the water we can get our hands on, so how on earth can we be allowing our water to be polluted if we will have to spend billions on cleaning it up again to use it. It makes no economic, ecological or health sense.”

Barnes continued: “Nobody wants to worry about sanitation. Eskom and the arms deal are so much more glamorous, so nobody talks about this creeping disaster facing us.” No matter how unglamorous, stories about polluted rivers have been popping up increasingly in newspapers across the country.

• Last month Noseweek reported that the Milnerton Lagoon which was once “a little paradise” is a fetid cesspit as a result of effluent flowing into it from the Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Works (nose244).

• In February 2019, Daily Maverick ran a story – originally published by GroundUp – reporting that residents of Sandvlei, a rural community in Macassar near Somerset West, were being made ill by the nearby Zandvliet treatment plant. Residents listed a number of health ailments including E. coli infections, sores, stomach infections, skin rashes, boils and migraines, among others.

Scientists backed up the claims, saying the treatment plant was “in crisis” and that raw sewage was being discharged into the Kuils River upstream from Sandvlei.

GroundUp reporters described seeing “a steady stream of dark, murky wastewater with floating clumps of foam, flowing into the Kuils River, upstream from the settlement”. A sign warned residents about the “potentially polluted” water.

The Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment plant, which is about 30 years old and long overdue for an upgrade, despite the fact that it servics the wastewater produced by nearly a million people, has been beset with complications arising from tender appeals. In mid-2019, the City of Cape Town announced that a R1.7 billion upgrade was underway at Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment Works.

• In September last year, Eastern Cape businessman Nick Mlumbi made the news when he threw three 25-litre containers of raw sewage into the Amathole District Municipality’s offices in Fort Beaufort, about 120km from East London. Mlumbi, who has lived in Fort Beaufort for 20 years, said he was fed up with the municipality’s delay in dealing with the broken sewerage pipes near his house – and that he and his family had had enough of what municipal officials were putting them through.

Times Live quoted him:  “I took the decision to dump this wastewater in their offices so that they can feel what I am feeling here for the past years.”

• In October 2018 President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the sewage problem in the Vaal River system a national crisis and authorised the South African National Defence Force to be deployed there to intervene, as the local municipality could not fix the problem. However the SANDF project was curtailed because of a lack of the funds needed – R1.1 billion.

• Raw sewage has been flowing into the river from pump stations in the Emfuleni Local Municipality on the Vaal River’s northern bank, affecting communities in Vereeniging, Sebokeng, Boipatong and Sharpeville in the southern regions of Gauteng, South Africa’s economic centre.

Residents described the Vaal River as a “giant cesspool”, saying “streets, homes, schools, offices and parks are awash with sewage” and complained that not one of the Emfuleni wastewater treatment plants was fully operational, resulting in over 100 million litres of raw sewage being pumped into the Vaal River System every day.

They said most of the 44 sewage pump stations designed to lift the sewage to the treatment works were “completely out of commission”, large sections of the 2,600km of wastewater pipes were broken and there were almost no qualified people, vehicles or equipment to fix the wastewater treatment plants, pump stations, and sewage pipes.

• On 22 January, 2020 the DA in the Ugu District Municipality called for the municipality to be placed under administration following numerous reports on an “almost decade-old sewage leak through the road into Mkholombe and the Merlewood Secondary School in Port Shepstone”  which is “endangering the lives of pupils”.

• On 14 January, 2020, the DA in Mpumalanga called on the White River Local Municipality to urgently attend to the sewerage spillage from Uplands, Pine Lake and other surrounding areas streaming into White River for the past six weeks.

“The infrastructure is crumbling, it has old asbestos pipes which are not wide enough to handle the amount of sewage that flows into it. Currently, the sewer is contaminating the river which supplies water to residents, farmers on the river line and livestock – including to Primkop Dam and Crocodile River. Despite this, the 2020/2021 IDP shows no indication of the municipality prioritising the problem of sewage pouring into the White River. There is no budget approved for maintaining the sewer infrastructure,” said the DA’s Trudie Grovè-Morgan.

“It is unacceptable that a river which is a primary source of water for residents can be left in such a filthy state. The failure to maintain infrastructure is an infringement on a basic human right and serious health hazard.”

• In early January, more than 300 holidaymakers reported that they picked up a gastro bug after swimming at Umhlanga’s Bronze Beach in KwaZulu-Natal over this past festive season. They blamed sewage leaks near the town’s Bronze Beach and accused the authorities of failing to warn bathers.

Sandra Dickson, administrator of the Facebook group “Stop CoCT – Dear Cape Town” which has as its goal to “diligently keep the Metro City of Cape Town and its council accountable”, posted recently: “Has Day Zero arrived for City of Cape Town owned sewage plants?”

For Jo Barnes, the interconnection between housing, sanitation and environmental pollution is a “creeping health disaster”.

In the late 1990s, when environmental issues were far from top of mind for most people, Barnes – whilst working as a senior lecturer in Epidemiology and Community Health at Stellenbosch University, was asked to do a study of the water in the Plankenburg River which runs into the Eerste River near Kayamandi, outside Stellenbosch.

“I was looking at the sanitation in the then settlement of Kayamandi. I started taking samples of the river water from the Plankenburg, which runs past the settlement. What I saw shocked me so much. The river was an open sewer.” She decided to turn this subject into her PhD.

Barnes wrote to the Stellenbosch municipal engineer about the state of ablution facilities in the settlement. “I was ignored, and when I persisted I was called hysterical and a liar and that I didn’t know what I was talking about. That set it off. After that, I never looked back. I started looking at more and more rivers.”

She recalls that, immediately after sounding her first warning to Stellenbosch Municipality, a campaign against her started. “They – as well as the then Department of Water Affairs – even complained to the university, my employer. Not long after that, I lost access to my dedicated water lab. They said they needed the space for something else. Six months later it was still standing empty. It didn’t stop me – I started using commercial labs and paid out of my own pocket.”

Barnes also recalls sitting in committee meetings over the years when she would raise the issues of river pollution, but the reponse was to “absolutely denigrate me” in committee. “They would say I was lying, ignorant and didn’t know what I was talking about. In the end I became the persona non grata.”

She remembers  begging a town councillor for more money for toilet facilities in dense settlements in a certain town. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘there are no votes for me in sewerage’.”

Fast forward to 2013, when the Department of Water Affairs referred the case of the polluted Eerste River to the National Prosecuting Authority for contravening the National Water Act. At the time, a Water Affairs spokeswoman said the department had been forced to resort to prosecution because the sewage polluting the river was “not receiving the necessary attention from the Stellenbosch Municipality”.
The department had received numerous complaints from community members and farmers since 1993. The pollution was caused by Stellenbosch’s overworked sewage plant which was spilling into the river, as well as the pollution of the Plankenburg River by untreated sewage as it flows past Kayamandi.

Dr Barnes holds degrees in Mathematics, Epidemiology and Community Health. Her major research interests are water-related diseases, water pollution, and sanitation. She is a recipient of the Order of the Disa of the Western Cape Province and numerous other awards, and is an associate of the Stellenbosch University Water Institute.

Barnes, whose father was a teacher who became a chief inspector of schools, was born in Malmesbury and raised in Piketberg, Sandveld and Worcester. She matriculated at Goudini High School in Worcester and completed an Honours B.Sc Medical Sciences (Epidemiology) as well as a Master’s degree, cum laude, at Stellenbosch University, before completing her PhD in Community Health at the same university in 2003. She worked as a technologist and researcher before taking up a post as senior lecturer in Epidemiology and Community Health at Stellenbosch University in 1996.

Barnes still lectures part-time in Epidemiology, Research Design and Water-related Health, as well as Disaster Management. She also consults on matters relating to water pollution, river contamination, sanitation, community health, urban housing, and disaster management.

She is currently monitoring the state of the Berg River for the Irrigation Board. “Europe and the UK are becoming very finicky about the quality of irrigation water used for exported fresh produce,” she said. “I am so concerned about the state of this river.”

Potsdam water treatment plant

When Noseweek asked her about her prizes, she deflected: “Don’t ask me about awards, they just give them to you if they want to shut you up!”

Prof Steven Robins of the department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch, who has been researching the politics of water in South Africa, described Barnes as a local Erin Brockovich. (Brockovich is an US environmental activist who successfully took on the Pacific Gas and Electric Company in California in 1993 over their contamination of drinking water with hexavalent chromium in the town of Hinkley. Her lawsuit was the subject of the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts.)

Prof Robins said: “Jo Barnes has been documenting the state of our rivers for years. She’s a top environmental scientist but also an activist. I definitely put her up there with Brokovich.”

Professor Lesley Green, deputy director of UCT’s Environmental Humanities South and an outspoken critic on water issues in the City of Cape Town, describes Barnes as a real character and a superb scientist. “She once told me in her inimitable Stellenbosch lilt: ‘The sea is like a great big magimix.’ She is genuinely one of the most fair-minded, justice-based scientists I know,. She has also suffered because she doesn’t accept the de rigeur shutdown of questions other scientists will accept, in order to stay in the contract-science game.”

Through years of trying to engage with municipalities and other authorities, Barnes said she had identified a ploy that is used regularly: “The first level – when people start reporting problems to a municipality or government department – is blatant, crude denial. They accuse people of lying, of fake news -
“After some time, when the evidence becomes obvious, they move on to level two, which is when a municipality will say: ‘We admit we have a problem, however, it is the people’s fault. They tip the blame on to the people who are complaining. For instance, they will accuse people of stuffing things down pipes. It is difficult to argue with that because some measure of this does take place but it’s not what’s causing the majority of the mess.

“Level three is now, when – easily ten years on – the municipality admits to a problem but the problem is now so big that they cannot do anything about it. That means they manufactured their own excuse simply by riding out the problem. They’ve got it down to a fine art. I see this over and over with different municipalities.

“Look at Cape Town, people have been streaming in since apartheid was abolished and the City still doesn’t have a coherent housing policy for them as they are such a good scapegoat. They blame the informal settlements for all the mess in the environment but they don’t do nearly enough about the informal settlements.”

Another key issue, Barnes said, is that municipalities have evolved into little power structures. “The solid waste people don’t talk to the roads people who have nothing to do with the people who look after the rivers.  Because of these iron-clad divisions, they don’t deal with the huge overarching issues. They limit the crisis that comes down on their heads by setting up rigid walls and by saying, ‘I only operate inside this area.’ There is very little coordination or cooperation between crucial departments. This is nationwide, in the municipalities that still sort of function. In the others, well, they just couldn’t care.”

The most frightening thing of all, said Barnes, is that the national Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation is virtually dysfunctional.

(A cursory glance at recent news reports will tell us that last year Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was filling her department with loyalists in a bid to build her political campaign to replace David Mabuza as ANC deputy president at the ANC’s national general council meeting this year. She’s reportedly plotting her moves based on the belief that Mabuza will be compromised by charges of corruption by the time the council sits. She is believed to be planning to run for the ANC presidency in 2022. Sisulu has also been accused of using the water budget to fund her campaign.)

Of course, all this does nothing to improve South Africa’s rivers, nor to help people’s access to water. It was recently reported that more than 21 million people – 5.3m households –  do not have clean water.

Minister Sisulu, in her department’s National Water and Sanitation Master Plan that was released a few months ago, said R898bn was needed to fix South Africa’s water and sanitation infrastructure. It is common cause that corruption is rife in the numerous infrastructural projects around the country.

Says Barnes: “I just don’t see any political will to turn this around. The ruling party underestimates the goodwill they can buy by simply getting things to work.

Asked for her ideas on turning the situation around, Barnes said: “The most useful place to start is to take drastic measures to stop the loss of water already in the system that leaks away or is lost. While that buys a little time by gaining extra water, the medium term solutions of purifying used water, improving water and wastewater treatment systems, desalination, etc. can be properly planned and implemented.

“It is no use designing costly, grand new schemes and then pouring the water into decrepit, leaking distribution systems. This crisis will not change until all levels of officials are held legally accountable for their decisions, spending and implementation. They are simply trying to talk their way out of problems they behaved themselves into.”

What is also needed, said Barnes, is for civil society to demand that civil servants do their jobs and fulfil the responsibilities for which they were appointed.

Why does she carry on fighting for clean water?

“I do it because I don’t have children. I don’t have anything to leave behind. If I can help fix some of these things, that’s what I can leave behind.

“My personal philosophy, attributed to tennis player Arthur Ashe, is: ‘Start where you stand, use what you have, do what you can.’ That’s what I live by.”

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