Tackling the Root Causes of Sewage Manhole Overflows in Our Municipalities

Tackling the Root Causes of Sewage Manhole Overflows in Our Municipalities

Source: OUTA

This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 14 May 2024

The sight and stench of sewage overflowing from manholes onto our streets highlights a failure in the very systems designed to protect public health and the environment. The recurrence of these incidents in municipalities across South Africa underscores systemic issues that demand urgent attention and decisive action. Understanding the root causes of sewage manhole overflows is crucial in formulating effective solutions to address this pressing problem.

At the core of the issue lies the aging and inadequate infrastructure of our sewage systems. Many municipalities grapple with sewer networks that were designed and installed decades ago, with insufficient capacity to accommodate the growing demands of expanding populations and urban development. The consistent approval of high-density housing and estates without sufficient supply and demand management for sanitation services escalates the problem dramatically. As cities grow, so does the volume of wastewater produced, placing immense strain on infrastructure ill-equipped to handle the load.

Furthermore, the lack of regular maintenance exacerbates the problem. Sewer pipes deteriorate over time – and even collapse – due to corrosion, cracks, and the roots of trees, leading to leaks and blockages. Neglected maintenance schedules allow these issues to escalate, eventually culminating in overflows that threaten public health and pollute our waterways.

Illegal dumping significantly compounds the challenge. Grease, oil, chemicals, fats, sanitary pads, diapers, condoms, and other forms of solid waste improperly disposed of find their way into sewer systems, clogging pipes and exacerbating blockages. This reckless behaviour not only increases the risk of overflows but also burdens municipalities with the added costs of cleaning and repairs.

Moreover, rapid urbanisation and the proliferation of informal settlements strain sewage infrastructure beyond its capacity. In areas where access to proper sanitation is limited, residents resort to unsafe practices, further burdening already overstretched systems. The lack of adequate sanitation facilities not only endangers public health but also increases the risk of overflows and environmental degradation.

To address the overflow of sewage manholes in our municipalities, concerted efforts are needed on multiple fronts. Firstly, substantial investment in sewage infrastructure is paramount. Municipalities must prioritize the rehabilitation and expansion of sewer networks, along with the upgrading of treatment plants, to meet the growing demands of urbanisation. Sanitation tariffs therefore needs to be ring fenced to stop this downward spiral.

Secondly, consistent proactive maintenance is essential to prevent overflows. Regular inspections, cleaning, and repairs can identify and address issues before they escalate, ensuring the reliability and efficiency of sewage systems.

Thirdly, strict law enforcement against illegal dumping is imperative. Municipalities must crack down on offenders without fear or favour and implement measures to deter such behaviour, including fines and public awareness campaigns.

Lastly, community engagement and empowerment are vital. Residents must be educated about proper waste disposal practices and encouraged to take ownership of their sanitation systems. By fostering a culture of responsibility and environmental stewardship, municipalities can enlist the support of communities in safeguarding against sewage overflows.

In conclusion, the overflow of sewage manholes in our municipalities is a complex problem with deep-rooted causes that demand comprehensive solutions. By allocating sufficient resources to sanitation, investing in infrastructure, prioritizing maintenance, enforcing the law, and engaging communities, we can mitigate the risks of overflows and safeguard public health and the environment. It’s time to confront this challenge head-on and work together towards sustainable solutions that ensure the integrity of our sewage systems.

Julius Kleynhans is the Local Government Executive at the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). He has been a water and environmental activist for more than a decade.

About WaterCAN:
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