Updated: Sep 21
The Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg has ruled the unabated flow of raw sewage into the Vaal River contravenes various environmental acts and must be prevented.
It has given Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu 45 court days to file a further affidavit outlining the measures taken to prevent the contravention of the National Environmental Management Act 107 of 1998 (NEMA) and the National Water Act 36 of 1998 (NWA).
He must also file an action plan for intervention.
The court ordered Mchunu's plan must provide a timeframe for its implementation and details for its funding.
This after years of municipal mismanagement and several attempts at fixing the broken wastewater treatment plants.
The plants are supposed to clean effluent from as far as Pretoria before releasing it back into the Rietspruit River, Klip River, Vaal River and Vaal River catchment area.
These form part of the Integrated Vaal River System (IVRS), from which Rand Water treats bulk water to deliver to 19 million people as clean drinking water.
The bulk water treatment plants have made headlines as their repair has been passed from one entity to another without success.
The plants should be in the care of the Emfuleni Local Municipality, but the municipality was placed under administration in 2018 and could not afford to fix the plants.
According to NGO Save the Vaal Environment (Save), the Emfuleni Local Municipality's wastewater treatment system collapse resulted in around 170 million litres of raw or partially treated wastewater entering the Vaal River daily.
Under administration, the repairs were placed at the feet of the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company.
When it could not fix it, the SA National Defence Force had a go. After that, the controversial Cuban engineers were deployed to the area, but the plants were still not fixed, and raw sewage continued to flow into the IVRS.
In February 2021, NGOs and concerned citizens called the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to investigate the problem. The result was a 117-page report which found several human rights violations.
The report found "despite having the ability to do so", it did not appear the Department of Water and Sanitation and Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries had been able to hold the municipality accountable "for causing sewage pollution as required in terms of Section 19 of the NWA and Section 28 of the NEMA".
The SAHRC found:
The impact of the discharge, occurring over more than five years at the time of writing, violated a number of constitutional rights which includes the rights to human dignity, freedom and security of the person, an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being, not to be deprived of property, health care, food, water and social security, just administrative action and the rights of children to be protected from maltreatment and degradation. Following this report, the Department of Water and Sanitation returned Rand Water to the project.
In March this year, News24 asked the minister what had come of its mandate to Rand Water to fix the broken treatment works along the Vaal.
Rand Water CEO Sipho Mosai said the spillages were "much better" - a pronouncement that raised the hackles of the communities living in sewage along the Vaal.
On 23 June, Judge Gregory Wright ordered the minister of environmental affairs to file an affidavit within 45 court days outlining the department's role in criminal investigations into the contraventions of the MWA and NEMA.
Mchunu has been ordered to invite and allow Save, the applicant in the case, to participate in quarterly engagement meetings, which will report on the measures to implement his anticipated plan to fix the infrastructure.
Save has for years worked to prevent pollution of the Vaal River and its tributaries.
The NGO, which worked with the River Property and Safety Association in this case, said the court order was a big win after years of litigation and pressure on authorities.
Save chairperson Malcolm Plant said the organisation looked forward to building relationships with the relevant authorities "because all parties are working toward the same goal of a clean Vaal River within the Emfuleni jurisdiction".
"We know that work has been going on [to try to fix the treatment plants], but it is surrounded by a veil of secrecy.
"Transparent and honest communication is the foundation of a relationship and helps to build understanding about the problems faced during the refurbishment and expansion projects," Plant added.