Human Rights Commission inquiry into pollution of the Vaal River

Vanderbijlpark business woman Mrs Rosemary Anderson.

An ecological disaster has unfolded as raw sewage and industrial pollutants flow into parts of the Vaal River. The South African Human Rights Commission held a formal inquiry into the spillage of toxic effluent into the Vaal River last week where Mrs Rosemary Anderson, a local business woman, owner of Stonehaven-on-Vaal, and a strong driving force behind Tourism in the Vaal, was one of many individuals or groups who submitted presentations to the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry. She submitted on behalf of the Emfuleni Tourism Association to indicate how Tourism Operators on the Vaal River and other businesses in the Vaal have been negatively affected by the pollution. She also submitted on behalf of Metsi le Temo (using waste water for agricultural purposes) – the Emfuleni Sanitation Initiative.

During all the other presentations, the negative impacts on human life and dignity – and the environment have been detailed. What we would like to do now, is indicate the impact on businesses in Emfuleni and the resultant loss of jobs – where according to our ELM Mayor, we now have 69% unemployment in the Vaal.
Approximately 10 years ago, Rand Water put a moratorium on all new developments on the Vaal River – or any area within 1000 meters from the Vaal River (which is their jurisdiction) – due to the lack of capacity to service any more sewerage intake. Following this, not long afterwards, ELM also enforced a moratorium on any new zonings with developments. However during this time, thousands of new RDP houses were built – without increasing sewerage infrastructure capacity.
It would be difficult to estimate how many major developments have been lost because of ELM infrastructure’s deficit and the resultant moratorium. It is estimated to be over 100 – but to name a few – Snowflake was going to build the biggest bakery in the Southern Hemisphere and provide over 1000 new jobs – we lost this; VESCO during this time has applied to build student accommodation with 25,000 beds – this has been declined, even though we have a serious shortage of student accommodation in the Vaal due to the popularity of our two Universities and colleges; a private hospital with 250 beds has had plans drawn up on a 5 hectare site – this has been declined; a retirement village with 1,200 units provided on 30 hectares has been declined; three hotels, and residential developments on 50 hectares with more than 1000 quality house.
The salient points here are that all of the above would have created short, medium and long term jobs. They would have also created by their nature – more economic local activity and spend in Emfuleni. And most relevantly, they would all have also handsomely contributed towards ELM’s income through electricity, water, rates and taxes – they would have benefitted ELM financially.
We understand the need for every South African to be able to own his or her home. This is understood and the human dignity and right of being able to do so is supported totally. We want everyone in the Vaal to have their own home and will do everything to support this.
However for the purpose of trying to explain the economic burden and demise of the Vaal – we bring to the Commissions attention that the only major developments that have happened in the last 10 years have been done by Human Settlements – where thousands of RDP houses have built which unfortunately has further burdened the ELM sewerage infrastructure since Human Settlements has not financially contributed proportionately to the increased sewerage burden that these additional thousands of houses have created. Added to this is that the majority of the people who reside in these new homes, now do not have jobs, so they are not able to pay for the water, electricity and services provided to them, even if they wanted to be compliant.
We would also like to mention something that has not been mentioned in any of the presentations, and that in excess of 50 mega litres of raw sewerage enters the Vaal River every day, due to informal settlements and some homes that are not even connected to the sewerage network. To put the figure of 50 mega litres in perspective, the whole capacity of the Rietspruit works is 36 mega litres – which services the majority of Vanderbijlpark. None of DWS’s presentations have taken the above into account or mentioned how they are going to address connecting these. We need to remember that capacity at the 3 waste water plants is only one of the causes of pollution. Even if you doubled the current capacity of all the waste water plants tomorrow – you would still have this 50 mega litres going into the Vaal River every day. The networks, missing networks and pump stations are currently the primary source of pollution.
We would also like to point out that even though the three waste water plants used to have capacity issues – as we speak, they do not have this, since the sewerage is not even getting to the three waste water plants, due to leaks in the pipe networks and faulty pump stations.
My name is Rosemary Anderson and I board member of the Golden Triangle Chanber of Commerce, the Chairperson of the Emfuleni Tourism Association and a Member of Metsi le Temo – the community and business initiative to use waste water for agricultural purposes and create thousands of jobs.
Part of the brief you sent out, was also to find out the impact that the sewerage pollution had on businesses that operated on the Vaal River. I am going to cover that.
The majority of businesses that operate on the Vaal River are generally in hospitality and resorts, the operating of commercial vessels or boat storage or boating clubs. This ranges from hotels like Riverside Sun (part of the Tsogo Sun Group), boutique hotels, river lodges, resorts, restaurant and pubs. As much as everyone in our area, is desperate to try to make the authorities finally react by getting lots of media coverage about the decade plus old pollution – all the negative media coverage we have managed to get, has even compounded the damage the actual pollution has caused to tourism on the Vaal River. It is a bit of a catch 22 – we need to do something to get those who can make a difference to do something, but at the same time, we are also damaging our own livelihoods and in most of our cases, our whole life’s savings in the form of the capital investment we have built up over decades – each time every bit of negative news materialises. It is currently not a happy space.
I operate a business on the banks of the Vaal River, so know firsthand how many cancellations we have had of weddings, conferences and corporate functions – since people do not want to be associated or spend money at a place that has a reputation of sewerage and pollution attached to it. Even though incidentally – the stretch of river where I am located is actually generally acceptable regarding the ecoli count, according to the Rand Water weekly report. However being on the Vaal – I carry the same reputational damage. Who wants to boast that they have a wedding planned at a place that they have just heard on the news has sewerage issues? Or have a product launch or client entertainment at such a place? This is obvious to me as to why we are in this fight for our very survival. But for the purpose of providing the Commission with accurate information, I sent an email out to all my colleagues who either operate hospitality venues or commercial boats on the Vaal River – to find out firsthand what their experience is in this regard. I was thoroughly depressed going through all the responses. For the purpose of confidentiality and their dignity I will just summarise. The majority of them say:- they are trying to sell their businesses but are not able to. Due to the drop in business, they have already retrenched but will need to do further cut backs, since their incomes are so vastly reduced; it is no longer a viable return on investment; whenever there is another Carte Blanche or such exposé, they end up having to give back deposits, since people cancel since they say it is a Health and Safety matter. Boating has obviously gone down, every aspect of operating a business on the banks of the Vaal River has been negatively affected.
One person summarised it by saying, having a venue on the banks of the Vaal River used to be their USP (unique selling point) but now it is her Achilles’ heel – it is her weakness that she has to combat.
On a personal level, I am still managing – however the amount of effort that I have to put in to retain the same type of income and be able to continue paying my work mates, is beyond exhausting. Today I have to work harder than I did when I first started this business in 1994. It is a dreadful burden to have to know that other people’s lives depend on you keeping your business financially healthy. In fact it invokes panic attacks.
Our Waste Water department (which is now called Metsi a Lakoa) used to be run really well when they had the appropriate budget for infrastructure and maintenance. It is long gone when they had both. I do believe we still have the ability within Metsi, if we were given the correct operating budget which is currently drastically short and the right people for the jobs. I heard how DWS has said we are now going to have two engineers join Metsi a Lekao). I welcome this, but I can imagine for the people working there, this must be quite annoying – when they often do not even have diesel for their bakkies to go and investigate sewerage spills and some times no bakkies either – their operational budget makes them doomed to failure. These problems have been brought to DWS, Rand Water and CogTA’s attention for many many years.

Right onto something more positive and innovative now. I am going to call upon my colleague Charl Claasen who is a professional engineer with vast experience in waste water plants. Charl is both a civil and environmental engineer. Charl is going to tell you what our Action Plan has been and is.
Government needs to invest R5 billion rand in Emfuleni. I use the word INVEST since this is what it will be. A good return on investment. This budget will also allow for the informal settlements who are not currently connected to the network and putting in 50 mega litres per day of raw sewerage into the Vaal – to now be connected to the sewerage system. Human Settlements must not be allowed to build any more houses unless they give ELM the appropriate allocation to service these houses through an increase in budget. These amounts have to be over and above the R5billion – since the R5 billion is just what we need to fix the problems that we currently have which will therefore allow us to have the moratorium lifted on development. Metsi le Temo must be put into operation everywhere possible, since it is the right thing to do from a to z – not only to create additional sewerage capacity but to create many agricultural jobs simultaneiously.
The Vaal has the highest concentration of engineers in SA. There is ample local engineering expertise in the Vaal to implement the upgrades and repairs. We request that all these major upgrades be awarded to companies in the Vaal and not given to companies outside the Vaal or overseas companies as was the case with Module 6, given to an Italian company. This will reduce the chances of labour and social unrest as per Module 6. Joint ventures to ensure it stays local. The Vaal residents and businesses have suffered for in excess of 10 years – this has to be payback for what they have gone through. The community wants and open and transparent selection process, with detailed specs put out, all tenders open and transparent – for public scrutiny, to try to halt the total public distrust there is out there.
The 5 billion investment will provide a significant return on investment, since the following developments on hold can then materialise:-
* The moratorium on building will be lifted. The many commercial developments on hold will then materialise.
* Investment will flow back into the area – will become truly the Southern Gateway to Gauteng.
* The Aerotropolis, Vaal River City, Gautrain and Agriparks can become a reality which will be a game changer for the region. Tens of thousands of jobs will be created plus the treated waste water will service the all the new Agriparks.
* River tourism and hospitality can re-emerge and grow after a significant, in some cases fatal knock.
* Thousands of new jobs will be created in agriculture with Metsi le Temo project and the AgriPark – the Vaal will truly become Gauteng’s bread basket.
* Media will be made aware of all of these positive developments – so the Vaal elevates its reputation to be “Proudly Vaal” once again! Success breeds success!
* Since residents will now have jobs, they will be able to pay for their municipal services delivery, which they are currently not able to and are currently very dissatisfied with local Government.
* The Municipality will then become a viable financially functioning entity – once again able to pay its bills and service residents’ needs as per our fine Constitution.
DWS, CogTA, Rand Water and ELM must not just say they currently do not have the R5 billion. They must also tell us where, where and when they are going to endeavour to get it. They must tell us they are going to do it – because the alternative is not an option.. It is not impossible – it is a worthwhile investment in an area that has so many projects on hold, that will show the R5 billion investment was worth it and that will create jobs and return the region to a thriving agricultural hug with a great looking river – as the cherry on top.
The alternative -is that a moratorium on development will remain, which will result in an even further downward economic and pollution spiral. This will indeed be a further contravention of the Vaal’s residents’ human rights, which have been already violated for over a decade.
Rosemary Anderson – September 2018

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