Methane bubbles popping on the river’s surface, sewage pipes clogged with tampons, diapers and toilet paper, and the smell of faeces lingering in the air.
These scenes are everyday realities for residents of Emfuleni – a municipality southwest of Johannesburg – as the breakdown of the area’s pipes, pumps and wastewater treatment plants causes sewage to overflow into one of South Africa’s largest rivers.
As the government announced a major plan in November 2019 to address the wastewater crisis and an ongoing drought, residents told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the seeping sewage is making their homes unliveable and their children sick.
“This is a national crisis,” said colonel Andries Mokoena Mahapa from his temporary office in the city of Vanderbijlpark near the Vaal River, where the South African army was dispatched to assist with sanitation repairs last year.
“We have seen children playing in the raw sewage,” he said. “Old people who can’t buy groceries because they can’t cross the river of excrement to get to the shops. These are only a few examples. It has been very alarming for us.”
Under global development goals agreed in 2015, governments pledged to provide access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.
But three in 10 people worldwide still do not have access to a water source free from faecal and chemical contamination, according to a 2017 report by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF.
Much of South Africa, a water-scarce country, still suffers from poor water management, according to South African think tank the Institute for Security Studies.
“The government needs to urgently prioritise funding so that (it) can restore the lives and the dignity of the people of the Vaal,” Mahapa said, citing “poor governance” as a major cause for the system’s collapse.
He added the army’s mandate until January would involve safeguarding infrastructure from theft while it waits for repair work to be taken over by the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company (ERWAT), which is commissioned by the government.
Citing “urbanisation, ageing infrastructure and limited municipal maintenance capacity” as reasons for the worsening conditions, sanitation department spokesman Sputnik Ratau said that 1.1 billion rand ($75 million) had been earmarked for repairs.
But it was not clear when the work would start, he said in a phone interview.
ERWAT did not respond to several requests for comment.
Local environmental groups such as Save the Vaal Environment (SAVE) and Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) said sewage pollution has gotten exponentially worse in recent years, and seeps into neighbourhoods at a rapid rate.
Stanley Gaba, spokesmon for the Emfuleni municipality, said that “(the) government is working around the clock to prevent a complete collapse of all infrastructure.” SEWAGE
The Upper Vaal river, together with a few other water sources, supports more than 13 million people, according to the nonprofit Centre for Environmental Rights, based in Johannesburg.
Ratau said that the drinking water coming from the river is pumped upstream from the pollution.
That means when South Africans open their taps it is still “some of the best drinking water in the world”, he said.
But for communities living alongside or near the Vaal, the real issue is the sewage leaking from the pipes, said Maureen Stewart, vice-chair of SAVE, who described the infrastructural collapse as a “time bomb”.
Nearly all of Emfuleni’s sewage infrastructure, comprised of some 44 pump stations, more than 2,000 km (1,240 miles) of pipes and three wastewater treatment plants, are in need of urgent repair, said Stewart.
At the inoperational plant near the township of Sebokeng large steel funnels are clogged with toilet paper, diapers and tampons meant to have been removed from the inflowing wastewater.
Sebokeng is supposed to treat 100 million litres of waste daily but degraded, blocked pipes and pump stations mean only 20% was reaching the plant before it shut down, said Samson Mokoena, a coordinator with VEJA – which was confirmed by Mahapa.
About 10km (6 miles) from the Sebokeng plant Patience Fanseko, an unemployed mother of three, braces herself for the sewage that flows out of her toilet in a hostel about twice a month and spreads across her bathroom floor.
The municipality comes intermittently to fix the burst pipes, but the fixes don’t last long, she said.
Throughout the hostel, residents have placed heavy bricks on top of manhole covers to keep the water from gushing into the streets.
Fanie Maquegu, a security officer who lives in the hostel, pointed to a brown line about 30cm high on the brick walls to show how high the sewage flow from a nearby manhole can rise.
“Low-hanging electric wires sometimes combust when the sewage flow makes contact with them and it cuts our electricity supply,” he said, walking carefully over sewage-soaked sand.
Cleaner and mother-of-two Pindiso Gebe has lived in the hostel for more than 15 years.
“Sometimes the children play in it,” Gebe said, pointing to the stream of sewage flowing like a river about two metres from her front door.
“They come home covered in rashes. They feel dizzy and get diarrhoea too,” she said, shaking her head.
Government spokesman Ratau said the lives of the community would improve “once pipelines were repaired and unblocked”.
In November, the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation released a “master plan” for tackling the sewage crisis and improving general water security, focusing on repairing infrastructure and more responsible spending.
“We remain hopeful,” said Stewart from SAVE. “But there is such a deep chasm between plans and implementation. What is needed right now is action.”
At Lochvaal, where the Rietspruit river flows into the greater Vaal, 73-year-old SAVE member Mike Gaade, a former chemical engineer, stood on the jetty jutting into the river outside his home of 35 years.
“I haven’t swum in years,” he said, pointing out the methane bubbles popping on the surface of the water as a result of the rising sewage below.
He dipped a spade beneath the surface and scooped up a mound of dark brown waste.
“The sludge used to be six metres below the surface, now it is about a metre and a half,” he said.
“If this doesn’t say we need to act now, then I don’t know what does.”