‘Looming sewage catastrophe'
Noseweek|March 2020
Effluent pumped into waterways poses ‘real danger’ to health, warns Dr Jo Barnes, dubbed the Erin Brockovich of South Africa
Sue Segar

IN BETWEEN WORRYING ABOUT ESKOM, junk status and David Mabuza, spare a thought for just one more thing: the state of the country’s rivers. In a word, it’s dire. South Africa’s rivers are being polluted on a massive scale, with billions of litres of sewage discharged into the rivers every day. This is largely due to the fact that close to 80% of the 825 municipal sewerage treatment works are dysfunctional and have been for a long time.

One person who’s been trying to do something about this for years is Dr Jo Barnes, an award-winning researcher into water pollution, sanitation and water-related diseases. For more than 20 years, she has been trying to get municipal and other authorities to take note of the growing crisis affecting our rivers and the potential public health risk this poses. But the former senior lecturer in Community Health at Stellenbosch University – now retired but still working as a water consultant – has had little luck and, through the years, has even faced active measures to shut her up.

“The municipalities, the City [of Cape Town], the Department of Water Affairs – they’ve all tried to shut me up, but I’m an obstinate old bird,” Barnes told Noseweek, when we met in Somerset West, where she lives with a Maine Coon cat called Megabyte and a garden full of birds and squirrels. It was an unbearably hot day, even in the air-conditioning of Somerset West’s Lord Charles Hotel, where we met. We drank endless glasses of iced water. Asked to comment on the state of the country’s rivers, Barnes replied: “It’s sewage, sewage and sewage.

“I don’t have words to tell you how bad it is. Sewage is an unromantic and unpopular topic but it’s presenting a very real danger. People in the towns and cities don’t realise this, as it is taken away by the rivers.

“Every sewage treatment works is built close to a river because the effluent – which is meant to be clean – is returned to nature. That, by definition, is how they work all over the world. But, what is happening in many of these treatment works is that the poorly treated effluent is being pumped into the rivers.

“People think the environment is something outside of town but the quality of the water we use affects everything from the quality of our food to our health and the economy. Many industrial processes just cannot happen with dirty water. And, of course, if our environment collapses, how do we get it back?”

“About 10%-15%” of South Africa’s sewerage works are doing well; a small few are functioning “reasonably”, but close to 80% are dysfunctional and spewing sewage into the natural environment.

“If more than half of 825 sewerage works are dysfunctional – that’s a massive amount of sewage.

“I don’t have words to tell you how important this issue is but it’s underestimated severely by the ordinary folk who understandably have other things to worry about at the moment. They don’t realise how South Africa’s poor economy will make things much worse, as there is not enough money to go around to pay all the rates and taxes so services will deteriorate. These things are interlinked.

“What I am really concerned about is massive outbreaks of disease [as a result of filthy rivers]. Being in the field of community health, I am deeply worried about this. It could knock the economy, knock the health budget and our health system is already falling apart. The knock-on effects would be huge – and we are setting ourselves up for it.

“And, as we sit here sweltering and it becomes dryer and hotter, we desperately need all the water we can get our hands on, so how on earth can we be allowing our water to be polluted if we will have to spend billions on cleaning it up again to use it. It makes no economic, ecological or health sense.”

Barnes continued: “Nobody wants to worry about sanitation. Eskom and the arms deal are so much more glamorous, so nobody talks about this creeping disaster facing us.” No matter how unglamorous, stories about polluted rivers have been popping up increasingly in newspapers across the country.

Last month Noseweek reported that the Milnerton Lagoon which was once “a little paradise” is a fetid cesspit as a result of effluent flowing into it from the Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Works (nose244).

In February 2019, Daily Maverick ran a story – originally published by GroundUp – reporting that residents of Sandvlei, a rural community in Macassar near Somerset West, were being made ill by the nearby Zandvliet treatment plant. Residents listed a number of health ailments including E. coli infections, sores, stomach infections, skin rashes, boils and migraines, among others.

Scientists backed up the claims, saying the treatment plant was “in crisis” and that raw sewage was being discharged into the Kuils River upstream from Sandvlei.

GroundUp reporters described seeing “a steady stream of dark, murky wastewater with floating clumps of foam, flowing into the Kuils River, upstream from the settlement”. A sign warned residents about the “potentially polluted” water.

The Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment plant, which is about 30 years old and long overdue for an upgrade, despite the fact that it servics the wastewater produced by nearly a million people, has been beset with complications arising from tender appeals. In mid-2019, the City of Cape Town announced that a R1.7 billion upgrade was underway at Zandvliet Wastewater Treatment Works.

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