“What on earth is wrong with the Jukskei?” Ed Visser, general manager of Monaghan Farm near Lanseria Airport, was worried. “The water was dark, almost black, and stank,” he said. This, one of Gauteng’s main rivers, winds for several kilometres through Monaghan and the Rhenosterspruit Nature Conservancy.

On Tuesday 23 October Ed and his colleague, Pieter Tolmay, decided to investigate. They traced the source to the Northern Waste Water Treatment plant, several kilometres upstream. Raw sewage was cascading into the Jukskei, not far from HeronBridge College. Pieter took photos and a video of the thick, black, stinking sewage entering the river.

Jukskei sewage 2

Jukskei sewerage 1

The search for an official who could deal with the problem began, finally leading to Daniel Masemola, Assistant Director: Catchment Management and Environmental Planning, Joburg Water. “We did a site visit and met with the Northern Works’ manager,” Masemola reported. “Environment and Infrastructure Services Department (EISD) found the situation very disturbing.”

So far, so good. EISD “escalated” the matter to senior management at Joburg Water and the Department of Water Affairs. An “urgent meeting” was organised to find a solution - a week later (2 November).

Meanwhile, the sewage continued cascading into the Jukskei.

“This must be the worst sewage spill in 25 years,” Paul Fairall, chairman of the Jukskei River Catchment Area Management Forum, told Radio 702. “The river was running black under the R114 and N14 bridges.”

The Jukskei flows into the Crocodile, which enters Hartbeespoort Dam, he added. “Downstream from the Dam lies a 13 000 ha irrigation area, with the potential to grow one-third of the country’s fresh produce. I shudder to think what goes into our food with this volume of sewage flowing down. I am actually becoming scared.”

Two weeks passed and the sewage flowed on. What did the authorities say?

Masimola reported back after the “urgent” meeting: “Northern Works is currently experiencing huge challenges regarding spillages into the river due to availability of belt presses and storm water infiltration,” he said. “During the past few months old belt presses had to be decommissioned, removed and replaced with new presses. This caused a serious sludge build-up, impacting negatively on the treatment operations. Treatment capacity is reduced due to high solids in the system and this resulted in spillages into the river. Joburg Water is doing everything possible to lessen the impact on the environment.”

Fairall was not satisfied. “The real problem is that two of their digesters are down because the needed R32 million is not available. This is hard to believe, considering the fantastic spend of Public Works. The implications are frightening.

“Failure by Joburg Water to do timeous maintenance on existing plants, coupled to unsustainable urban drainage systems have led to these ongoing, environmentally destructive, regular spillages into our catchment. The stale clichés - ageing infrastructure, budget constraints, lack of capacity - no longer fool the public. Add to that the inability to manage, plus the billions of rands being wasted or unaccounted for. In spite of the Corporate Governance Act enforcement of our environmental laws is sadly lacking or in most cases nonexistent.”

“Waiting for authorities to act is a waste of time. Civil society now needs to act,” he says. Fairall is now working to build a strong public lobby for improved water resource management. VeldTalk will keep abreast of this development.