Cry the soiled country: SA swamped by sewage

The growing number of raw sewage spills and cases of contaminated water across South Africa is becoming a critical threat to lives, livelihoods – and even the future of small towns. Sonja Boshoff of the National Council of Provinces has fought an epic – 15-year-long – battle in just one of the affected areas in Mpumalanga. The Democratic Alliance (DA) MP warns that a “very big health issue” will “explode” in South Africa if the African National Congress (ANC) government continues to allow municipalities to get away with it. She also guides BizNews through the Government’s recently released interim Blue and Green Drop Watch reports.


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By Chris Steyn

The growing number of raw sewage spills and cases of contaminated water across South Africa is becoming a critical threat to lives, livelihoods – and even the future of small towns.

Sonja Boshoff of the National Council of Provinces has fought an epic, 15-year-long battle in just one of the affected areas in Mpumalanga.

“It is absolutely disgusting to see what happens…And we see it every single day…there is absolutely not a municipality that’s not complaining, or constituents that are not complaining about the quality of water and sanitation in the areas that they live in…They protest. They do everything. And it is as if the municipalities just turn a blind eye.”

Ms Boshoff, who is also a Democratic Alliance (DA) MP,  charges: “…lives and livelihoods of many people and communities are put at risk…And the big battle with regard to containing sewer spillages is that once the sewer is spilled into our rivers…these rivers invariably travel downstream and, in our case, many people live on the embankments of this river and they don’t have access to running water through pipes…they have to fetch water from these rivers. Many farmers downstream use these rivers for irrigation purposes. These rivers eventually meet up and then they stream down into our oceans. So it’s a ripple effect – and it has to be contained. We cannot allow our government to get away with these types of things.”

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Moreover, some municipality water treatment plants fail to meet the required standards. “The health risk involved here is astronomical,” warns Ms Boshoff.

She slams municipalities that fail to inform their residents that the water is not safe enough to drink. “I mean you see the standard of water all over – and you see these photos of people posting water that is coming from their taps and it’s brown and filthy, but they haven’t been given any indication by the municipality that the water is not suitable for human consumption. And this is where the health risks come in that we are currently seeing.”

The poor water- and sanitation conditions have hit small towns particularly hard where it has led to tourists avoiding the areas, guest houses and businesses going under, increased unemployment and desperate work seekers fleeing to the cities. 

“It is actually shocking to see what is going on in these little towns…and many other small towns which are reliant on tourism…are feeling the crux of the non-maintenance and attendance to these infrastructure failures by the municipality, because people refuse to come and visit there anymore. Guest houses are closing down, businesses are closing down. It just adds to the unemployment figure that we currently see in South Africa, which is sky high, especially amongst the youth. People are urbanising.”

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Boshoff says failure to maintain both ageing and new infrastructure; the lack of budgets to do so – and to build new infrastructure; as well as the appointment of unqualified people to manage these issues, are responsible for the growing crisis.

She also guides BizNews through the Government’s recently released interim Blue Drop Watch and Green Drop Watch reports.

“Now…the Department of Water and Sanitation says that it notes with grave concern the overall poor water quality. It’s no use noting this. It’s time that they put action to their words. We want to see this department on the ground, not just visiting once people are protesting and once questions are submitted. They should know exactly, they should have a programme in place where they can monitor these municipalities that have transgressed and those that are currently starting to transgress. 

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“They cannot allow these municipalities to get away with these transgressions, because we will see more outbreaks and health risks to the communities in the various municipalities.”

Boshoff says the African National Congress (ANC) government is now “many, many years” behind in dealing with the crisis. She urges the departments of Water and Sanitation and Environmental Affairs to get together to discuss how they’re going to take this forward “before we see a very big health issue exploding in South Africa.

“We can’t wait 15 years for something to be fixed.”