A flurry of government visits to the Vaal in the past fortnight, gives new hope to the resolution of the Emfuleni Municipality’s sewage crisis. At last, SAVE the VAAL’s alarm bells are being heard. First, the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation held a press conference followed by meetings and an inspection of the Vaal River and Rietspruit. On Friday 7th February, the Water and Sanitation Parliamentary Portfolio committee was taken on a cruise to see the pollution in the river for themselves.

In-between, there have been two important announcements, one from the Minister and the other from the Portfolio Committee. This interest and the discussions reinforce SAVE’s decision to suspend the litigation against various Government entities until a progress review In April.

Water and Sanitation Minister commits to resolve Vaal sewage pollution crisis
At a press conference held at the Vaal on 21st January, The Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation appealed to the community, including SAVE the VAAL, to trust her. From her approach, Lindiwe Sisulu is determined to resolve the Vaal sewage pollution crisis as quickly as possible. The question is, will the bureaucrats ensure the efficient processing of funds and payments to contractors so that ERWAT is able to meet its commitments and deal with the many challenges such as theft, community protests and the lack of education in some communities which results in those communities using manholes to dispose of incompatible objects into the waste water system, thus causing serious blockages.

SAVE environmental specialist attorney, Jeremy Ridl explained to the Minister the reasons for SAVE proceeding to get court orders firstly against the Emfuleni Local Municipality and the joining of the national Departments of Water and Sanitation, Environmental Affairs and Finance together with Gauteng Province officials to the 2018 court order against Emfuleni. He also explained that SAVE has been working to prevent ongoing pollution of the Vaal River for over 20 years.

In response to SAVE’s caution that the Minister should not make promises she cannot keep, as her predecessors have done, she said “trust me”. and invited SAVE to take its problems to her directly – “to the top” and they will be dealt with.

The Gauteng MEC for COGTA, who is aware of the legal action, said that his Department had no intention of fighting legal action as they accepted the problem had to be resolved.

The Minister held a second meeting on 27th January with community groups including SAVE and the Golden Triangle Chamber of Commerce and confirmed her intentions of cleaning up the Vaal River.

In a press statement, Minister Sisulu said that she intends seeking Cabinet permission and approval for the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to intervene and assist the Emfuleni Municipality to manage water services infrastructure.

This means that because of the challenges of capacity within the municipality, the DWS will be responsible for the management of water within the Emfuleni Municipality and assist it to provide the necessary capacity.

The press statement goes on to say that Rand Water and ERWAT, as the two implementing agents of the project, would then report directly to Minister Sisulu on their continued intervention in the Vaal.”

SAVE fully supports Minister Sisulu in this move and we trust that Cabinet will also seethe urgency and necessity of the proposal in resolving a major crisis.

Water Minister, Lindiwe Sisulu visits the Rietspruit – 4th February 
In an unprecedented move, Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation took a. boat trip on the Vaal Barrage and up the Rietspruit, the source of much of the pollution plaguing the Vaal River. Sisulu was accompanied by the Mayors of Sedibeng and Emfuleni and other officials. The VIP party disembarked from the Spirit of Jen onto a flotilla of barges organised by SAVE to see the Rietspruit for herself. Toxic blue algae blooms at the Barrage were amongst the worst seen on the river.

The Minister described her tour as “an eye opener”.

Minister Sisulu commented favourably on the partnership which has been established between members of the community, NGO’s such as SAVE and organised business with the Government and ERWAT with a view to cleaning up the river and renewing the infrastructure, thereby creating jobs and laying the foundation for further development on the Vaal. She was impressed by a scheme devised by local businesswoman Rosemary Anderson to use partially treated sewage water for agricultural purposes thus reducing the capacity constraints of existing treatment plants.

The Minister said that her Human Settlements portfolio was seriously hindered by the fact that the current infrastructure was not designed to carry the exponential growth of the population in urban areas. The slow pace of progress also had a direct negative impact on the construction industry, a large creator of jobs, which is also of serious concern to the Government.

Water & Sanitation Portfolio Committee visits the Vaal- 6th February
Influential Water and Sanitation Parliamentary Portfolio Committee embarked on a boat trip from the Vaal Barrage to the Rietspruit. The Chairperson of the Portfolio committee, Machwene Semenya said in a media statement that the broader solution to the problem is two-fold – improved legislative framework governing water infrastructure and dealing with operational and maintenancebacklogs.

The amendment of the two primary legislations, the Water Services Act and National Water Act, is now pressing to ensure synergy and efficiency. between the two legal frameworks. “We are of the view that the current legal framework must be strengthened to make it more effective,” said Semenya.

Directives by the Department of Water and Sanitation to municipalities – the source of the pollution – were not working, the committee said, which resulted in the need to reconsider the licensing of municipalities that were failing to run wastewater treatment plants.

Meetings with Vaal Intervention Team – 22nd January
Since the December newsletter, the SAVE team attended two meetings with the Vaal River Intervention Team comprising of officials of the DWS, Gauteng Province, ERWAT, Rand Water MISA and ELM The main purpose of these meetings was to review progress which would enable SAVE to decide whether to leave the six months’ ‘moratorium’ in place or whether to proceed with court action.

It appears that ERWAT has a workable plan to systematically bring the Emfuleni Waste Water System back into operation. Some blockages in the network have been cleared so there is progress.

On this basis, SAVE has agreed to maintain the six months moratorium on court action.

We applaud Minister Sisulu for her proposed action to take the project under her personal wing.