Water Watch

Political noise drowns out growing water crisis

Sacry sight of Vaal Dam's level

All-dominating political noise is drowning out what is shaping up to become a more immediate crisis with the supply of, and access to, water in South Africa.

While a news storm centred around President Jacob Zuma, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and the issue of so-called state capture, the combination of the worst drought since 1903, collapsing infrastructure and pollution of water sources is fast developing almost unnoticed into a major crisis.

Some areas in the country, like the Amatola district in the Eastern Cape, have already been confronted with life-threatening situations.

And in parts of the economic heartland of the country, dependent on the Vaal River system, besides encountering supply problems, communities are running the risk of serious health threats due to pollution, including from raw sewerage.

Awareness of the problem with sewerage dates back some time, and in 2015 the Mail & Guardian reported that the town of Deneysville on the banks of the Vaal Dam, next to its wall, is “being overwhelmed by streams of human waste”.

But the problem not only comes from human waste and fertilisers being used in agriculture.

As recent as this past weekend it was reported that a Harvard Law School investigation has found that the extraction of gold by mines has left a “dangerous” environmental legacy.

“It includes having left some communities with contaminated water, soil and air with elevated levels of heavy metals, including uranium.

“Elevated concentrations of heavy metals and radiation can cause immediate and long-term medical problems ranging from asthma and skin rashes, cancer and organ damage,” notes the report.

Yet the government has not fully met its obligations to ensure that communities in these areas can exercise their rights to health, a healthy environment, water and housing, the report states.

At a July 2016 Green Building Conference, University of the Free State professor and water expert Dr Anthony Turton said “… our sewage plants throughout the country are collapsing. We produce five-billion litres of sewage a year and only 20% of that is treated to a standard that makes it safe to be discharged back into rivers and lakes.”

In reality, however, in many instances this insufficiently treated water does go back to rivers and dams.

In the case of Deneysville, from where water in the Vaal Dam is released to areas downstream on the Vaal River, insufficiently treated water goes to the dam because the sewerage treatment plant of the Refenfkgotso (Sasolburg area) is hopelessly under-capacitated.

The problem is further exacerbated by the drought and the resultant low levels of dams, pushing up the toxic bacterial concentrations in the water.

Political situation adds to problem

The present crisis dominating our political and news scene does not only distract from the attention the developing water crisis deserves and needs, but adds to the problem.

This was, almost unnoticed, illustrated at the end of last week when the latest dramatic development in the political drama burst onto the news scene.

Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, filed papers with the High Court in Pretoria asking it declare that, as finance minister, he is not obligated to help the Guptas in their battle with South Africa’s largest banks, which all terminated their banking relationships with the Guptas and their companies earlier this year.

The papers reveal a list of “suspicious” bank transactions by Gupta-owned companies at the heart of allegations about ‘state capture’, totalling almost R7bn.

On the list of 72 “suspicious” transactions is one of R1.3bn in which the funds from the mining rehabilitation trust fund of Optimum was paid to the Bank of Baroda, an Indian bank that still does business with the Guptas. The Optimum mine was bought by the Guptas’ Tegeta Exloration and Resources from the mining giant Glencore under highly controversial circumstances.

In his affidavit Gordhan expresses his concern that the Guptas could have appropriated the rehabilitation fund for other purposes. This fund, according to law, should only be used to restore the environment after a mine falls into disuse. There has been much speculation that Tegeta intended to raid the rehabilitation fund in order to repay loans likely obtained to buy Optimum in the first place.

It is, however, not only on this level that funds intended to secure clean, safe drinking water to the South African population is under political and maladministration pressure.

Also last week, again almost unnoticed, it was announced that Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane has set up a task team to investigate allegations of corruption following claims that she used her ANC influence in the so-called ‘watergate’ scandal. Mokonyane came under fire early this year after accusations of political interference in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The Democratic Alliance claims that the minister had a hand in the manipulation of processes to award tenders to companies and individuals with connections to the ANC.

In the instance of the Refenfkgotso municipality, referred to above, a Carte Blanche report a year ago and an article on BizNews found that the treatment plant for sewerage is under-capacitated to deal with the water because a licence issued by the Department of Water and Sanitation is not properly policed. This allows the pipeline to take the polluted water to the dam where untreated sewerage is then dumped.


The political crisis in the country is exacerbating a problem that is an immediate threat to the health and quality of life of millions of South Africans as well as inhibiting attention being paid to it.

by Piet Coetzer

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