Graham Sell: SA’s drinking water reservoirs are full of shit. Literally.

Graham Sell
Graham Sell

A fish rots from the head. Public services too. So with SAA’s chairman Dudu “Feed Me” Myeni in charge of those who manage South Africa’s water reserves, we always had reason to worry. But panic is a more realistic reaction after court disclosures that she told Richard’s Bay’s fired water chief the key performance area for underlings is to ensure Ms Myeni gets to “eat” – rather than securing potable water, which is what a rational mind would expect. Our investigation whose results are so brilliantly delivered below, was sparked by concerned citizens of Deneysville who were appalled that local authorities were pumping illegal raw sewerage into the Vaal Dam, Gauteng’s major drinking water reservoir. We passed on the assignment to Graham Sell, a retired executive and occasional blogger. His findings, all from publicly available official sources, should send sales of bottled water soaring. Reading this I couldn’t help thinking of gifted author and former Oxford don RW Johnson who lost his leg after nicking his foot on a rock exiting the Trafalgar Beach lagoon. Communities use the river feeding the KZN resort as a dumping ground for effluent. That created the ideal breeding ground for the flesh eating bacteria which almost killed SA’s foremost intellectual. Graham Sell describes the mismanagement of its water reservoir as putting South Africa “deeply in the pooh.” He is far too polite. – Alec Hogg

By Graham Sell*

It was only when I started looking into the controversial award of a Water Use Licence (WUL) to Metsimaholo Municipality (enabling them to pump treated and partially-treated effluent from their Refengkgotso sewerage works into the Vaal Dam at Deneysville) that I realised how deeply in the pooh we are across the whole country – both literally as well as metaphorically.

Before getting back to the specifics of the Refengkgotso pipeline, take a look at the compliance table below to see how your province fares in the Green Drop stakes. The Department of Water Affairs and Sanitation (DWS) Green Drop awards program sets standards for processing raw sewage into an acceptable state for reintroduction into the environment. As a cornerstone of the program, municipalities are required to regularly test the effluent from their waste water treatment plants to ensure that it complies with prescribed microbiological, chemical, and physical standards.

Green Drop Compliance Statistics

Region Period Total Tests Required Total Tests Done Tests Done vs Tests Reqd Total Tests Passed Tests Passed vs Tests Done Tests Passed vs Tests Required
Northern Cape 2016/08 657 63 9.59% 33 52.38% 5.02%
Free State 2016/08 1419 328 23.11% 225 68.60% 15.86%
Limpopo 2016/08 497 113 22.74% 80 70.80% 16.10%
Eastern Cape 2016/08 2383 802 33.66% 497 61.97% 20.86%
KwaZulu-Natal 2016/08 2650 987 37.25% 718 72.75% 27.09%
Mpumalanga 2016/08 1229 542 44.10% 399 73.62% 32.47%
North West 2016/08 1015 465 45.81% 399 85.81% 39.31%
Gauteng 2016/08 7815 5730 73.32% 4839 84.45% 61.92%
Western Cape 2016/08 2855 2548 89.25% 2050 80.46% 71.80%
National 2016/08 20520 11578 56.42% 9240 79.81% 45.03%

This table very clearly shows the lack of concern that the majority of municipalities have for the quality of “treated” effluent they release back into local rivers and dams. These are the same rivers and dams, by the way, which are the primary sources for our drinking water.

Many of them, such as the Vaal River and Dam, are also tourism and recreational draw cards that contribute to the local economy. Any significant deterioration in the recreational quality of the water can therefore also have serious consequences for tourism-based enterprises, and their ability to provide sustainable employment opportunities to the local labour force.

Although there are many other equally critical areas of concern, the story behind Metsimaholo Municipality being given a license to pump treated and partially-treated effluent into the Vaal Dam at Denysville, might help to explain how we have arrived at such a parlous state.


In 2015 an ANC-led council forged ahead with the construction of a 355mm “treated” effluent pipeline without necessary authorisations from DWS. DA Councillor Johan Geyser reported the irregular project to DWS who forced Metsimaholo Municipality to halt the project until the necessary licences were obtained. At this time, construction of the pipeline was well advanced.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, there was no upgrade to processing capacity at the treatment plant in progress, so there is little reason to doubt that Metsamaholo Municipality intended to pump untreated raw sewage into the Vaal Dam to alleviate their excess waste predicament.

In April 2016 the appointed consultants, Scientific Aquatic Services (SAS), prepared a Water Use Licence application for submission to DWS. Unsurprisingly, given the circumstances, SAS endorsed the routing of the almost completed pipeline, with a couple of variations from the original plan that avoided the need for more detailed environmental impact assessments, and their concomitant costs.

Against a raft of objections from the local community and SAVE (Non-Profit Organisation: Save the Vaal Environment), the license was granted on 7th June 2016 by the then Director General of DWS, Margaret-Ann Diedricks.

It would be interesting to ask Ms Diedricks why the approval was granted when Refengkgotso’s treatment plant capacity had not yet been increased, but unfortunately she had resigned from her position “with immediate effect”, and without explanation, some 30 days after issuing the licence.

This does not imply any wrongdoing on her part, but to make such a controversial decision so close to departure does beg for an explanation. Did she already know that she was leaving DWS when she approved the licence? Was she distracted by controversies wracking the department relating to award of tenders to LTE Consulting that allegedly bypassed normal open tender procedures? Was she applying her mind to the licence application, or just clearing her desk?

Superficially there is nothing wrong with the Refengkgotso WUL application, nor is there anything superficially wrong with its approval but something doesn’t smell quite right.

Dstv’s Carte Blanche program recently ran a segment entitled Vaal Dam: Status Critical. In this exposé Stephen van Staden, Managing Director of Scientific & Aquatic Services openly admits that while the Refengkgotso treatment plant is being upgraded, “there will be a period of time when effluent that has not been treated to the required standard will be pumped into the dam”, which will directly contravene standards required by the water use licence. Van Staden must know this, and so must the Department of Water and Sanitation, which begs the questions, what will the Department do about it, and did they know this in advance of issuing the licence? Again, it would be interesting to hear the point of view of the previous DG, Margaret-Ann Diedricks, but she appears to have dropped below the radar.

Vaal Dam. Picture courtesy of Twitter @SureKamhunga
Vaal Dam. Picture courtesy of Twitter @SureKamhunga

On the political front, after the August local government elections, the ANC-led Metsimaholo council has been replaced with a DA-led council. With their history of opposing the pipeline, it will be interesting to see how the DA deals with this issue now that they are at the sharp end of the problem. Will they try to find an alternative or, pardon the pun, just go with the flow? It will certainly be an interesting test of their political integrity.

At the end of the day, though, the Refengkgotso/Deneysville situation is only one of the many sewerage disposal disasters happening across the country.

Unpacking the National Issues

  • First of all, municipalities, particularly smaller municipalities, do not have the financial resources or skills to properly address the challenges of sewage processing and disposal. Urban expansion is also outstripping their ability keep up with demand.
  • Many municipalities have the mistaken belief that water purification at the drinking end of the cycle mitigates their lack of concern for polluting the input to this process. All they are really doing, however, is moving the problem from the back end, to the front end, as it were. While they may be reducing costs for processing our sewage, they are exponentially increasing costs for purifying our drinking water. In several instances recorded by Afriforum’s own 2015 Blue & Green Drop Report, the purification processes are themselves not adequate
  • “He who pays the Piper…..” The appointment and briefing of consultants particularly environmental consultants is systemically flawed. There is no blame attached here as they are fulfilling the mandate of their client. So if their client says “We need you to justify what we have already done…” or “We need the cheapest, not necessarily the best option…” etc then that is what they have to provide. To do otherwise is professional suicide. Yet when we are talking about a national strategic asset, should consultants not be obliged to identify the best possible long-term options, irrespective to perceived short term costs?
  • The Department of Water Affairs & Sanitation issues Water Use Licences based on an assumption that licensees are going to abide by the standards stated in their licence. Yet DWS either has no teeth, or just can’t be bothered to enforce these standards. The 4.9% of Waste Water Treatment Plants that achieve Green Drop status (40 out of 821) attend presentation ceremonies and pat themselves on the back. The other 95.1% apparently couldn’t care less. Until there is a punishment to fit the crime, and pollution is a crime, all the unenforced standards in the world are not going to help us.

Where to from here?

Water is a National Strategic Asset, and should be managed as such. We cannot continue to have incompetent or disinterested local municipalities messing with the future of our water supplies. Technically, by not meeting minimum required standards for effluent discharge, many municipalities are in continuous breach of Chapter 2, Section 24, Article 9 of the Constitution which states:

Water_droplet_blue_bg05Everyone has the right:
a. to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and
b. to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that
i. prevent pollution and ecological degradation;
ii. promote conservation; and
iii. secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting justifiable economic and social development.
Yet nothing is done to challenge their indifference to this constitutional obligation.

The already dire situation has been exacerbated by the prevailing drought conditions, which further highlights the need for high-level strategic interventions. Interventions that bring skills and enough clout to knock the system back into shape. We can live without nuclear power; and we can live without a National Airline; but we can’t live without clean water, and a healthy environment.

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