Fishy tales about Vaal River: Ed Herbst examines the slippery facts

EDINBURGH — The ANC is in the spotlight over an environmental disaster in the Vaal Dam. Years of financial mismanagement and corruption have contributed to the degradation of a vital resource. Rand Water has denied that raw sewage is to blame. The ANC has put together a convoluted explanation, obfuscated in bureaucratic gobbledygook (for a taste, read this article on the Engineering News website, or scroll to end, and then please email us your best translation). Meanwhile, veteran journalist Ed Herbst has attempted to clear up the mystery around Vaal River pollution. – Jackie Cameron

Vaal Dam
Vaal Dam. Picture courtesy of Twitter @SureKamhunga

By Ed Herbst

The economically depressed Vaal River district is facing catastrophe as sewage from the Emfuleni water waste works continues to spill into the river, with the area’s core agricultural and tourism industries facing imminent ruin. – Neels Blom Business Day 31/7/2018

A fortnight ago Carte Blanche carried the latest in a series of programmes over several years about how the utter indifference, indolence, incompetence and pervasive corruption in ANC-controlled municipalities has reduced them to bankruptcy and has transformed the Vaal River into an open sewer.

Fish are dying by the thousands.

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

In response, Sputnik Ratau, Media Liaison Officer at the Ministry of Water and Environmental Affairs sent out this egregiously false and shameless media statement on 7 August:

DAFF: Water and Sanitation on dead fish in the Vaal River

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has been inundated with reports of fish kills in the Vaal River, especially at the Vaal Barrage and downstream. The department initiated a study in 2010 to investigate these fish kills. One of the findings is that most of the fish kills in the area is caused by chronic stress conditions due to the sustained lower oxygen concentrations, which is a result of natural variations. 

Most of the investigations concluded that the fish kill were caused by seasonal weather changes whilst others were inconclusive mainly due to late reporting.

2018 regarding this phenomenon, preliminary investigations indicated the absence of any dead fish at the alleged site and that the incident occurred a week before where there was a drastic drop in temperature, however samples were taken for analysis and results are still pending.

In terms of the failing infrastructure at Emfuleni, the Department is carrying out its regulatory functions and support is being provided to the municipality.

To date the Department has issued 5 notices and 6 directives to the municipality in relation to the sewer spillages along the Sedibeng sewer scheme.

The DWS is also looking at finding additional funding for operations and maintenance, to complete the construction of Module 6, and complete the upgrade of Modules 1 – 5 which are not operating at full capacity.

The DWS is also cognisant of the process underway by the Gauteng Provincial Government in terms of Section 139; which process is still at the level of the National Council of Provinces.

Issued by Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries 

Its brazen contempt for the intelligence of the country’s citizens resulted in such a backlash that the site was closed down and this message posted:

Site under maintenance

This site is currently under maintenance. We should be back shortly.

Thank you for your patience.

The Save the Vaal NGO then sent the following open letter to the Minister of Water Affairs and Sanitation, Gugile Nkwinti via its Vice Chairperson, Maureen Stewart:

Dear Mr. Mtsweni,

SAVE the VAAL is concerned about a press statement issued by the DAFF and published in the media regarding fish deaths in the Vaal River.  This announcement is attached for easy reference together with SAVE the VAAL’s response.

We would appreciate your acknowledgement of this e-mail and if you could bring this open letter to the attention of the Hon. Minister of Water and Sanitation.

Many thanks,

Yours sincerely,

Maureen Stewart

Vice Chairperson


12 August 2018


Dear Minister

We refer to the press release issued by your department on 7th August 2018 relating to the recent fish kill on the Vaal River near the Barrage in which it was stated “that most of the fish kills in the area is caused by chronic stress conditions due to the sustained lower oxygen concentrations, which is a result of natural variations”.

The author of this statement is either ignorant or dishonest. Given the extremely high levels of sewage pollution of the River because of the total failure of the municipal waste water management system, to suggest that the oxygen depletion in the River is due to “natural variations”, is preposterous. We are concerned that the statement is intended to mislead the public, and more seriously, to mislead you. The truth of the matter is that the River between the Vaal Dam and Parys, is so polluted at present, it retains very little “natural” function, and it is no surprise fish are suffocating in what has become an open sewer.

Your department is well aware of these facts and you should be too.

The spokesperson claims that your department has issued “five notices and six directives to the municipality in relation to the sewer spillages along the Sedibeng sewer scheme”. Have any of these notices or directives led to any action against the municipality (Emfuleni Local Municipality) by your department? The answer is “no”. Simply put, your department has failed dismally to discharge it constitutional mandate to protect the water resources of the country, and this is most acutely illustrated by the state of the Vaal River at present, a condition it has been in for more than decade.

During this time, SAVE has obtained nine court orders against the Municipality, the most recent being in February 2018 in the form of a “structural interdict” which required the Municipality to immediately prevent discharges of sewage into the River, to fix broken infrastructure and to report back to the court on its compliance with the order and the implementation of a comprehensive plan to restore the functioning of its failed wastewater management system. The Municipality has not been able to comply with the court order and is in contempt of some of its provision. The Municipality does not have the financial or other resources necessary to carry out the court order. Where has your department been during this time of crisis? Hiding behind statements of deniability of the facts such as the one referred to above, and a complete abrogation of responsibility for its constitutional mandate.

We appreciate that your predecessor in the portfolio of water and sanitation has left you with a department that is both morally and financially bankrupt. You have our support in the efforts you must make to restore the integrity and functionality of your department, but you will not get it if we must respond to the kind of irresponsible statements contained in this recent publication by your department.

Matters have been taken largely out of your hands and the hands of the Municipality by the decision of national government to place the Municipality under the financial administration of the Gauteng Premier, the MEC Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, backed by Treasury, in terms of section 139 of the Constitution read with section 139 of the Local Government Municipal Finance Act.

SAVE was about to haul the Municipality back to court, and to join your department to the court action, but is now working with the Premier’s team to implement the comprehensive service delivery plan it has devised for the Municipality. SAVE will ensure that solving the current pollution crisis is given highest priority. If the best your department can do is put out nonsensical statements about the state of the River, we suggest that they move out of the way so that a real solution to the problems of the Vaal can be implemented.

Best you direct your efforts to fixing your broken department so that it can discharge its important statutory mandate, and when you have done this, your department might have a role to play combatting the pollution of the River by sewage.

Yours sincerely



An in loco inspection by Business Day found conclusive evidence of fish dying and extensive sewage spills.

From the Engineering News:

“The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has assured that it, together with Rand Water, the Gauteng provincial government, and the Sedibeng district and Emfuleni local municipalities are working towards improving the state of the Vaal river and the Vaal dam. Rand Water stated that reports of raw sewage flowing into parts of the Vaal river are factually incorrect; however, it assured the public that stakeholders are, nevertheless, working towards proper functioning of water and sewage systems in the region. The DWS has the primary responsibility to license and regulate raw water resources.

The Emfuleni local municipality, as the water services authority, has the responsibility to avail water and sanitation services to all users within its environs.

Rand Water is responsible for the abstraction of raw water and the treatment thereof to a potable level. Rand Water also acts as an implementing agent on behalf of the DWS when needed.

A number of issues that surround the nonperformance of, particularly, the Sebokeng regional sewer scheme (SRSS) are being looked into and proper planning towards their resolution is being undertaken.

Rand Water is the implementing agent for SRSS, with the sewer infrastructure owned by the Emfuleni municipality.

This includes ongoing engagement with the local community to update it on progress and the importance of the scheme working. This resulted in the blockade of the scheme being lifted and the technical staff being allowed back on site.

To ensure the security of this important infrastructure Water and Sanitation Minister Gugile Nkwinti has decided to approach President Cyril Ramaphosa to declare the SRSS a national key point.

If approved, this will heighten security around the facility and enable it to continue operations without interruptions as a result of civil strife.

Following on the Minister’s budget vote earlier in the year, Nkwinti will revert back to Parliament to find condonement of the intended reprioritisation as envisaged to look at ensuring that not just Module 6 of the SRSS is completed, but that Modules 2 to 5 are also brought back to full capacity.

All of this will lead to the next stage of the construction and commissioning of Module 7, in time.

It will be important that all the work around the SRSS is supported by ensuring that the pump stations that feed into it are also fully functional.

While the technical work is envisaged to go full steam ahead, this has to be supported by the requisite political and institutional solutions within the affected municipalities.

“What is needed is that, whether there is a change of the political guard or not, the basic requirements of infrastructure development and that which is in place should not be compromised,” said the DWS

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