Environment News

Sabie River, an excremental river

Michele du Plessis

The once pristine Sabie River had the reputation of being the cleanest river flowing towards the Indian Ocean, free from pollution. Now that same river is contaminated by sewage from overflows, leakages and the discharge of untreated / partially treated sewage.

This microbial pollution is a human health risk, especially to rural communities that use the river water for a myriad of purposes.

This includes the water management institutions cooperation in the Inco- Maputo transboundary basin involving the three Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, South Africa, Eswatini and Mozambique, represented by the IUCMA, River Basin Authority (RBA) and Aqua Regional Association- South (ARA-Sul) respectively.

Unfortunately, this once pristine river is now, literally, full of faeces/shit/excrement/faecal matter. It doesn’t matter what you call it, the stench of mismanagement is overpowering. Is the municipality in breach of their obligations in terms of the compulsory national standards and measures to conserve water by continuing to receive and discharge untreated or inadequately treated sewage into water resources? Are they violating the affected communities’ right to an environment that was not harmful to their health and wellbeing? Does this call for the criminal investigation of the complaints against the cited municipality, as environmental pollution is not only a violation of a right but a criminal offence in terms of the various environmental legislation? You decide…

This problem did not surface yesterday. IUMCA 2016 Report: “At the site on the Sabie Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW), a strong smell of raw sewage is present. This indicates that the sewage overflow from manholes in the Sabie town’s storm-water drainage is entering the river before it reaches the treatment works.” 2009 Full-Length Research Paper

Focus on 14 sewage treatment plants in the Mpumalanga Province: “Common pathogenic bacteria isolated from the final effluent included Salmonella, Shigella, Escherichia coli, Vibrio spp. and Enterococcus spp. The final effluent was used for irrigation and recycling purposes in 4 plants, all the other treatment plants discharged the effluent into the river or to the environment. The present study indicated that there is a move toward the renovation of wastewater treatment by the municipalities in the Mpumalanga Province with the adoption of biological treatment.”

On April 12, 2021, there was a meeting/inspection held at the Sabie WWTW.

It was an urgent follow-up of “work” that should have been done 2 years ago to alleviate the “sanitation frustration at the Sabie Sewage Works”.

Figures present include Captain Gwilym Rees, Chairman of the Sabie Rate Payers Association (SRA), Richard Salt, Professional Engineer, SRA, Rodney Sambo, Plant Operator representing Thaba Chweu Local Municipality (TCLM), Adolf Mbetse and Thabiso Malemela, both from the Inkomati-Usuthu Catchment Management Agency (IUCMA), Nocawe Nkosi from Mpumalanga – Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs and a representative of GPS News.

“Upon arrival at the Sabie WWTW, one is greeted ever so harshly by the scent of pure delinquency of a formidable pumpkin patch hugged by unkempt grounds, not featuring in a homemade stove nor washing line between expensive equipment and infrastructure of a diesel tank. A big no-no,” GPS News representative.

This is of grave concern for Adolf Mbetse, the sludge beds of which there are six, non-functioning, in total. The obvious derelict state of the plant is also worrisome to Gwilym Rees as “the entire Plant is not functioning according to design”. Adolf Mbetse concurred with “when you look at the WWTW as a whole, it is not functioning correctly, I agree with you”.

Captain Gwilym Rees, Chairman of the SRA reported back: “Everybody was on board in terms of what was discussed. We went through the entire plant. According to the operator at the sewage plant is just recycling / recirculating the sludge back into the aerator pond and then back into the clarifier pond again achieving nothing in the process except building up more sludge in the clarifier. The water that is running out of the clarifier directly into the Sabie River is completely untreated. While it looks relatively clear; it is obviously not. This is going straight into the river. That has been for several months now.”

According to the IUCMA’s water quality monitoring results For Sabie WWTW, the E-Coli per 100ml was >2420 at the upstream point in January and February 2021 and 189 in March 2021. The limits in mg/l are 0. The count at the Sabie WWTW discharge point was >2420 for the three months. The downstream count was exactly the same: >2420 mg/100ml.

According to Richard Salt, the following are the minimum necessary for the WWTW to function:

  • 66% minimum functioning of the aerators out of a possible 99%, i.e. ⅔;
  • Effluent flow meter (which sends a signal to the chlorine dosage pump);
  • The chlorine dosage sthat is supposed to be injected into the sludge clarifier pond outflow is not happening (pump broken);
  • The sludge is then pumped to drying beds for compost sales, not subsistence farming, on what once was a system of six drying beds.
  • Of the 2 sludge pumps, only one works and sounds like it’s on its way out;
  • Plants and vines are on their way in and not the fact that simply recycling sludge and manually removing plastics and foreign objects from the separating area due to “broken or nonmaintained equipment”.

In 2014, York Timbers repaired and renovated the Sabie WWTW. In 2017-2018 a tender was awarded to Isiphepho Consulting Engineers for “Provision for professional services for the Sabie Waste Treatment Works Refurbishment” (TCM/T13/2017-2018). The cost of the tender – R296, 870.60 and the tender period 12 months. Another tender was also awarded to Bo-Mamohlala Projects for “Refurbishment of Sabie Waste Water Treatment Works (TCM/T36/2017-2018). The cost of the tender R3, 014,114.40 and the tender period 12 months.

“I can also say that we expect the municipality to come back and respond to the effect that they either have done or are appointing a contractor to refurbish or revamp the entire sewage works. However, we’ll be monitoring that very closely together with IUCMA and other stakeholders. So, I don’t think that the municipality will get away with what they did last time where they paid a contract of R5.7 million, virtually painting nothing better than a few handrails and a few pipes, then the contractor disappeared, having been paid. So, we are obviously keen to avoid that situation coming through again,” Captain Rees said.

According to Nocawe Nkosi from Mpumalanga – Department of Agriculture, Rural Development, Land and Environmental Affairs, “one cannot do anything to a contractor when the municipality doesn’t do its part”. As Adolf Mbetse said: “We need to engage with the municipality, not just contractors. We have to be involved. I know every corner of this plant; it is a small plant. There are written reports but there is no change.”

Rodney Sambo, TCLM, had been overjoyed and utterly grateful for the amount of attention and interest expressed by all departments present, and he said: “I want to thank you guys for coming out here today, I really appreciate it.”

The fact is, no matter how much funding or contractors you throw at anything, if there is no management, accountability; there is neglect, shoddy workmanship, theft, no training nor deadlines, you will be engulfed by a swirl of sludge, period.

It would seem that knowing heavily polluted water being pumped into the ecosystem is not a big enough headache for some as it is to others. This utter mismanagement of funds leading to an ecological catastrophe is simply not acceptable in 2021 and going forward.

“We had a technical meeting on April 14th, attended by the SRA and TCLM (Sabie Unit) and arising from that is the fact that Richard Salt and myself, we will continue to monitor developments at the treatment plant, and will inform you once we see some action. We will also be requesting from TCLM a copy of the project plan, and also the scope of work for the contractor. We’ve also arranged with Stanley the unit manager that he will formally request the same documents from the manager and technical director,” Captain Rees concluded.

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