Theuns Vogel, a 68 year old farmer in the Tswane district, was hoping that his vegetable farm on the banks of the Apies River would be his retirement plan. Due to raw sewage that has been flowing unchecked from the collapsed Rooiwal wastewater treatment plant, Vogel’s wheat crops have failed.
“The collapse of the Rooiwal plant has totally destroyed the agricultural network in the area,” he said. “North of Pretoria, the Apies River is all raw sewage.”
Vogel was speaking to reporters a week after the SA Human Rights Commission heard submissions from desperate residents of Tshwane regarding the near-collapse of the city’s wastewater treatment infrastructure. Vogel has been farming in the area for nearly 18 years, and is one of six farmers who’s water is supplied directly from the Rooiwal plant. Tests conducted by hydrologist Johan van der Waals, have shown an E. coli count of 520,000 parts per 100ml. This is truly alarming considering that the accepted standard demands that there should be no detectable E. coli in drinking water.
Untreated sludge have however been spreading onto farms in the area due to heavy rain. The sewage water has also leached into the groundwater of the area. The City of Tshwane will be heading to court as the department of water and sanitation vowed that it would go the legal route to force the repairs of the plant. Vogel and other farmers in the area now forced to get their drinking water from five water tankiers sent out by the city on a daily basis. Another 40 tankers are used to supply the residents of Hammanskraal, where they have been unable to drink tapwater for nearly 10 years.
“It must be costing them billions,” said Vogel. “Why don’t they use that money to fix the plants?”
Dewatering the excess sewage sludge is an important part of the treatment process in which the water in the sludge is squeezed out in a belt press and filtered while the solid matter is fed into a hopper. The collapse of the Rooiwal plant has totally destroyed the agricultural network in the area and contaminated the ground water. According to Vogel, only three of the 10 belt presses are still in working order, and raw sludge is simply dumped into the river. Usually, the sludge would be spread in a sacrificial land (large open area), where it is dried and turned into manure. The sacrificial land of the Rooiwal plant spanned 50 ha.
“So the guy downstream is receiving all of this. The land can’t handle any more, it’s saturated,” said van der Waals.
It could take up to 10 years to rehabilitate the land if the city follows an extensive recovery program. Leaving the land to recover on its own however, could take close to a 100 years.
The city’s serious water pollution problem is also being felt at the Roodeplaat Dam, where a combination of raw sewage flowing into the dam from the Pienaars River and spreading invasive water hyacinths have all but made the dam unusable as either a water supply or for recreation. Kobus Fell, who owns a resort at the dam, claims that 45% of the dam is already covered with hyacinths. Fell estimated as much of 50,000 tonnes of plants could soon be rotting at the bottom of the dam, which will further degrade the quality of water.
“On the 460ha dam that means more than 200ha is covered. It’s horrific. With all those decaying plants, the water is being degraded.”
Officials of the Water and sanitation department visited Fell at the Roodeplaat dam last week where he presented a plan to clean up the dam using a combination of manual removal and aerial spraying of herbicides where workers could not reach the plants. If the programme was maintained through the winter, few plants would remain to reproduce and cover the dam. According to Sputnik Ratau, the spokesperson for the department, they are swamped with proposals. Ratau however insisted that the prescribed process must be followed, or they would “fall foul of the water act”. According to the prescribed processes, the proposed solutions must first be proven effective before being implemented.