Our rivers are sick.
The Hennops, the Jukskei, the Crocodile regularly contain a mix of sewage, plastics and other worse pollution. Tests downstream, even before the Crocodile reaches the Pelindaba nuclear facility in Broederstroom, appear to show traces of alpha and beta radiation. The result of acid mine drainage flowing down the Crocodile River from the West Rand?
“It’s difficult not to be alarmist when one’s own eyes and nose tell you the water flowing through our area is not just dirty, it’s dangerous,” said a resident from Riverside Estates.
“I sometimes wonder if our rivers are almost beyond rehabilitation, maybe dying,” said a Hennops River resident, who watches the river flowing by his property, covered in waves of foam from who-knows-what waste.
Sewage from Northern Wastewater Works pouring into the Jukskei River (October 2015). Work was begun to address this in November 2015.
And then there’s Hartbeespoort Dam, the destination of this contaminated water. And more damage. Parts of the Dam are an evil soup of green algae, possibly containing the dangerous cyanobacteria. Even the word causes a shudder.
The regular, stark statements by water expert, Prof Anthony Turton of Free State and Cape Town Universities, don’t offer any comfort. The biggest challenges facing SA, he says:
• are failing sewerage plants across the country
• ongoing allocation of mining rights without any consideration of the negative impacts of mining on water
• and perhaps the most concerning, the venomous microcystin neurotoxin in the cyanobacteria poisoning many dams across SA.
So, throw up our hands in despair and anger at the situation and seek who to blame? That’s a start. But is there a way to make a difference?
As the poet W.H. Auden put it, "Thousands have lived without love, not one without water."
By August last year, the Jukskei River had been receiving daily sewage flows for weeks from the Northern Waste Water Works at Diepsloot. A despairing call from a local resident resulted in a public petition demanding management accountability and proper action to correct this. It had two quick and positive outcomes:
• Joburg Water came forward with a remedial plan to deal with some long outstanding maintenance work at Northern Works.
• A lobby group called ARMOUR - Action for Responsible Management of Our Rivers - was formed to hold the management of the waterways, starting with the Jukskei-Crocodile, accountable and focused.
“Every month, ARMOUR and several other citizen action groups meet with senior officials from Joburg Water and the national Department of Water and Sanitation,” says Anthony Duigan who started ARMOUR. “We focus on three things - identify specific problem areas; determine what needs to be done and by whom; and then monitor implementation.”
So far, so good. Progress has been made in Northern Works, two public feedback meetings with the officials have been held and a working relationship between ARMOUR and officials, mixing cooperation with challenge, is bearing fruit in a quicker turnaround of at least some problems.
Next is the bigger issue: how to leverage more funding from municipalities and get the deployment of better skilled people to water purification works.
In July ARMOUR won first place in the Water Efficiency and Management category of the Mail&Guardian’s 2016 Greening the Future Awards. Says Anthony Duigan, one of the founders of ARMOUR (pictured above with the certificate): “ARMOUR’s drive is to be a Voice for Water. That means, among the myriad issues facing our waterways, identifying who is responsible for specific problems, working out with them what can be done and then monitoring what needs to be done. We just want healthy rivers and wetlands and intend going beyond only complaining to put in the work to make that happen.”