The Department of Water and Sanitation has roped in the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (Erwat) to assist the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) refurbish water infrastructure on the Vaal River.
The Emfuleni municipality has 44 pump stations that move waste water into three treatment works, but 39 broken pump stations and broken pumps are seeing raw sewage flowing into the Vaal. The Sunday Times reports that broken sewage systems pump up to 130 million litres of effluent into the waterway every day.
Since October last year, South African Army engineers have been upgrading 44 critical pump stations, refurbishing three treatment works and cleaning primary settling tanks (PSTs). So far, the SANDF has fixed two primary treatment tanks.
As the SANDF has not been able to fix all the broken pump stations, the Department of Water and Sanitation in August called in Erwat, a wastewater management company, to provide extra capacity but could not say how long it would take to fix all the pumps. Erwat is expected to work with the SANDF to improve water quality in the Vaal River system.
“We cannot disregard the amount of work that the SANDF has done so far to be able to stop some of the spillages that were happening especially in the townships and look at some of those wastewater treatment stations…and secure infrastructure,” Department of Water and Sanitation spokesman Sputnik Ratau told Jacaranda FM.
A lack of funds has held the SANDF back from making further progress on the Vaal River project. “The SANDF couldn’t go any further because they were hampered because of lack of funds. The lack of funds from the government has been at the core of everything going wrong at the Vaal River and things are worse than they have been,” said Maureen Stewart, Vice-chairperson of the Save The Vaal Environment organisation.
Siphiwe Dlamini, SANDF spokesman, told SAfm, “I think the situation could be even worse if we did not go in there. When we were requested to go there and assist with the challenges faced by the Emfuleni municipality…we did our best…a number of facilities were not functioning and we were able to put back those facilities into functional positions. As we speak now, we’ve done pretty well in my view and those people in the knowhow will confirm that under very difficult circumstances we have helped to rehabilitate four major stations with the sludge that had rendered those pumps dysfunctional. We fixed those.”
Dlamini added that there is a major problem with theft and vandalism, with soldiers currently guarding 16 pump stations. He said that fixing the Vaal River system “is a mammoth task. It is a problem that has been going on for ten years. You cannot expect to fix it in one year. A billion rand was needed to fix it.” Part of the problem is polluted water flowing from higher ground further upstream.
Two weeks ago deputy president David Mabuza visited the Vaal Rehabilitation Project and expressed disappointment at the progress made. The Army has used up the R350 million allocated to repair and refurbish water infrastructure, with Mabuza assuring that more money would be released for the project.
Defence expert Darren Olivier, Director at African Defence Review, said, “I don’t understand how Cabinet thought this was ever going to work. The SANDF was ordered to perform the work despite it being outside its mandate, but not given the required funding to buy the needed parts. So good initial progress was inevitably halted then reversed.
“The SANDF engineers did great work despite the ridiculous constraints of their task, but they’re not magicians. The Army also kept warning about the shortfalls and shortcomings only to be ignored for the most part. Bad policy inevitably led to bad outcomes.”