The Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation have decided to take over the Emfuleni Local Municipality’s (ELM) water infrastructure, after years of pollution and mismanagement was confirmed in a damning report by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) earlier this week.
The municipality is in charge of an array of defunct wastewater treatment works in the area, which has resulted in polluting the Vaal River, dam and barrage systems.
This affects at least 19 million residents in the City of Johannesburg and Midvaal, who are dependant on the river.
The Department’s Minister Lindiwe Sisulu took the decision three weeks ago to invoke Section 63 of the Water Act of 1997, which will see the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) taking over ELM’s water and sanitation duties.
The report, released by the SAHRC on Wednesday, found the Vaal River was pollution “beyond acceptable standards”, and advised that the ELM be put under national administration.
The SAHRC also found “extensive non-compliance” to have occurred across all spheres of government.
In 2009, Rand Water began helping Emfuleni to resolve issues with the Sebokeng Wastewater Treatment Works. But Rand Water later withdrew due to lack of payment from the municipality.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) was brought in to assist in 2018, but problems also could not be resolved.
This was when the Ekurhuleni Water Care Company took over, but could not assist, prompting the Department of Water and Sanitation to step in. However, they have cited a lack of funding.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also put strain on upgrading infrastructure, forcing defunct wastewater treatment plants to continue performing at sub-par capacity, and further endangering the lives of millions.
The SAHRC found a lack of skills within Emfuleni to effectively manage wastewater management systems for more than a decade.
Vandalism and theft have added more pressure to the scenario, which also causes further monetary losses to the embattled municipality. As such, the SAHRC recommended that national government taking over the running of the municipality.
“We have taken note of all issues raised in the commission’s report and we will seek audience with the commission,” Sisulu said.
“It is common cause that Water and Sanitation Department has been involved in the attempts to resolve the problems in the Vaal, all spheres of government have been deeply involved.
“For the past year, I’ve been in extensive discussions with the local community and the business people in the area about the same matter.
“[On Friday], I met Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and briefed her on our decision and on the matters raised by the SA Human Rights Commission.
“We are happy that we and the SA Human Rights Commission are in agreement that Section 63 of the Water Act, 1997 is the only solution to the problem.”
The DWS said it was “at an advanced stage” of preparing the required Cabinet memorandum to get approval for the takeover.