Criminal charges filed for sewage pollution in rivers

The Vaal River at Warrenton.

The Vaal River at Warrenton. Photo: Helena Barnard

Criminal charges for sewage pollution have been filed against the municipal manager of Bloemhof and Christiana, as well as four Northern Cape municipalities, by a water quality specialist who has been monitoring the water quality of the lower Vaal and Orange River for five years.

Consultant Fritz Bekker does research for Gariep Watch, a civil organisation that wants to protect the rivers in question by monitoring it, collects data and scientifically investigates and encourages public participation on the subject.

“These rivers are the only lifeline of the Northern Cape. It is extremely important to protect it from sewage and other chemical pollution. Sewage pollution not only endangers the lives of all potable water users and the aquatic environment, but also the livelihoods and well-being of downstream agricultural producers and their employees.”
Fritz Bekker

The Sol Plaatje Municipality in Kimberley extracts and purifies its potable water at the Riverton Plant on the Vaal River, downstream from Bloemhof, Christiana and Warrenton where Bekker found alarming levels of sewage pollution.

“An E. coli count of 23 colony forming units (CFU) was found in the river at this plant, showing there is untreated sewage of human origin in the Vaal River, upstream of the Kimberley extraction point.”

Gariep Watch’s quarterly river monitoring programme shows that untreated sewage ends up in the Vaal and Orange River during the first flow conditions.

The municipal managers will be held responsible by the criminal complaints filed against them. After this, complaints are made to the South African Human Rights Commission, the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the Environmental Management Inspectorate (Green Scorpions).

Gariep Watch has also conducted detailed biomonitoring studies in the river.

“Healthy rivers have an ability to break down small amounts of pollutants, while affected rivers cannot. Untreated sewage is dangerous because it contains bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi, and chemical substances.

“Pharmaceutical residues, heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants pose a major hazard that is not ordinarily tested for. Many of these pollutants accumulate in the river sediments, and are released in flood conditions.”

Bekker has designed a detailed and forensic-quality quarterly chemical and bacteriological water quality monitoring programme that is being maintained by Gariep Watch on the lower Vaal and lower Orange River.

The Lekwa-Teemane Municipality manage the sewage plants in Bloemhof and Christiana. Bloemhof’s golf course sewage pump station is open to storm water infiltration, indicating that rainwater will be contaminated here from where it flows to the Vaal River.

“Several manholes near the pump station are blocked and untreated sewage water is flowing towards an artificial wetland area from where it enters the Vaal River. The main sewer line to the pump station is blocked and the sewage is flowing above ground where it may mix with clean storm water before entering the pump station.”

In Christiana, untreated sewage water flows from the Utlwanang township underneath the N12 where it mixes with a large discharge of sewage of the President Street sewage pump station. All this sewage reaches the Vaal River.

Bloemhof and Christiana are situated just up-stream from the Vaalharts Dam that feeds the 40 000 ha Vaalharts irrigation scheme and supplies drinking water to six towns.

Thuli Mbonani, the Lekwa-Teemane municipal manager, could not be reached for comment.