Freshwater sources in Tshwane, including the Hennops river and Roodeplaat dam, are being polluted with untreated and partially treated sewage and sludge with devastating effects because of a failure to maintain wastewater treatment works in Pretoria.
These were the findings released by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) following an inquiry into the state of wastewater treatment works in the City of Tshwane.
The inquiry was instituted earlier this year following complaints about malfunctioning treatment works releasing sewage into the Apies and Pienaars rivers, as well as the Roodeplaat and Leeukraal dams.
In its report, the SAHRC said it was clear freshwater sources were being polluted."The effects of the pollution on the water, its ecosystems and the people who use the water have been devastating," the report said.
"This is made clear by the Magalies Water Board's water sample analysis carried out last year that showed horrendous levels of faecal coliforms and E. coli."
It added:"Fauna and flora are dying or growing at an unhealthy rate, further polluting the water. People and animals who drink the water are vulnerable to illnesses such as bilharzia, cholera and hepatitis. Such exposure renders those most vulnerable like the elderly, children, and those who are ill, even more at risk of adverse health conditions."
"It is, by now, obvious that these water sources are important for the lives and livelihoods of those living in and around the areas of these freshwater bodies - they contain diverse fauna and flora, they are sources of potable drinking water, they contain sources of food for commercial and subsistence fishers, they are used for international water-sports, and are central to tourism in the area."
The SAHRC noted that according to a statement in 2018, the Department of Water and Sanitation "had been seized with the matters of malfunctioning wastewater treatment works within Tshwane since 2010".
It found the "primary reasons for the unacceptable levels of pollution" was the failure to manage and maintain the existing wastewater treatment works in the city over a prolonged period.
"Failures in management, which have resulted in a regression in standards of delivery, include poor planning and implementation evidenced by the insufficient number of WWTWs (wastewater treatment works) to accommodate the growing population in the City of Tshwane."
The SAHRC said the failure to maintain or have a sufficient number of wastewater treatment works, which led to the pollution of rivers and dams, was a violation of the Constitution.
"In terms of our Constitution and the legal framework, people living in South Africa are entitled to an environment, which includes rivers and dams, which are 'not harmful to their health or wellbeing', as well as to proper water and sanitation services."
It laid the blame at the feet of various state organs, including local, provincial and national governments.
ORGANS OF STATE
"High levels of pollution over a period of time have been allowed by various organs of State entrusted to maintain services and prevent degradation of the environment, and water sources in particular.
"The commission said the national, provincial and local governments were not in accordance with the Constitution as they did not secure the wellbeing of the people of the republic."
The SAHRC said the City had failed to fulfill its constitutional objectives by not ensuring the provision of services to communities in a sustainable manner and not promoting a safe and healthy environment.
It added the City was in violation of its obligations in terms of Municipal Systems Act, the Water Services Act, the National Water Act, National Environmental Management Act and National Health Act statutes, which enabled and regulated the provision of water services as well protect fundamental rights and water sources.According to the report, the City conceded the malfunctioning and inadequate state of repair of wastewater treatment works were a result of insufficient budget allocation; continuous change in municipal managers; and not having the necessary skilled human resources available to maintain the WWTWs.
The Department of Water and Sanitation said the reasons for the failing wastewater treatment works resulted from poor planning and management.
"It is clear from the steps taken by the DWS [Department of Water and Sanitation] since 2011 that efforts had been made to prevent further pollution and to try and hold the City of Tshwane to account," the report said.
"They have had several meetings and issued several directives in terms of the NWA [National Water Act]. The City of Tshwane failed to comply with directives to prevent further pollution, and this has resulted ultimately in the DWS instituting legal action in the Gauteng Division of the High Court."
Based on the findings of the report and similar issues faced by other municipalities, the SAHRC recommended that the situation regarding failing wastewater treatment works in South Africa and its consequent pollution of the country's water resources be declared a national disaster, in accordance with the Disaster Management Act.
As part of the declaration, it recommended the establishment of a national water care entity that would oversee the operations of wastewater treatment works at a national level.
"A national water care entity could be a viable and effective response to the challenges, providing a central point, expertise and integration for the proper management of wastewater services in the country."
In addition, the SAHRC recommended that municipal managers, who were in place during the deterioration of wastewater treatment works in the City of Tshwane and who allowed pollution to continue through failure, be held accountable in terms permissible by legislation, including through criminal prosecution.
It gave all cited parties 60 days to respond to its report.
City spokesperson Sipho Stuurman said it was studying the report and would respond accordingly in due time.
"We do, however, respect the work of the SAHRC, hence we co-operated with their delegation when they came to Tshwane. Furthermore, we remain committed to providing safe drinkable water to all our residents.
"Phase 1 of upgrades to the Rooiwaal wastewater treatment plant are ongoing, the City allocated R300-million to this. Unfortunately, it takes time to fix such large infrastructure, especially since it's been ignored for long by past administrations," Stuurman added.