WaterCAN calls for urgent action to save South Africa’s rivers from sewage pollution

klein jukskei river

WaterCAN calls for urgent action to save South Africa’s rivers from sewage pollution

On the International Day of Action for Rivers, WaterCAN plans a criminal complaint against the City of Joburg and increases water testing, as sewage continues to pour into our rivers

Image: WaterCAN

Over the past few months, WaterCAN has tested the quality of water in the Umbilo River in eThekwini and the Klein Jukskei River in Johannesburg, and found critical levels of E.coli from sewage in both.

The International Day of Action For Rivers on 14 March focuses on saving, celebrating and creating awareness about the importance of rivers. Globally at least two million tonnes of sewage, industrial and agricultural waste are discharged into the world’s water every day. This is no different in South Africa: it is estimated that 50 000 litres of sewage flows into our rivers every second.

In eThekwini, WaterCAN has partnered with Adopt a River to test the quality of the water in the Umbilo River. The results over six weeks indicate that the levels of E.coli are critical with the highest count reaching 686 700. A safe range is a count between 0 and 130. The joint water sampling, using both a WaterCAN citizen science test and an accredited laboratory verified sample, provides us with valuable information on yet another broken system and sick river.

“We are seeing the results of years of neglect of maintenance and lack of upgrades to wastewater infrastructure. Livelihoods, the environment and, certainly in Durban, the local tourism and sport and recreation sectors have all been negatively affected,” says Janet Simpkins of Adopt A River.

In Joburg, the results are not a surprise given that the pipes close to the Zandspruit pump station have been overflowing into the Klein Jukskei sporadically for years. The results show high levels of E.coli and faecal coliform bacteria. E.coli upstream was 64 000 colony forming units (CFU) per 100ml and downstream of the pump station was over 100 000 CFU/100ml, which can be regarded as raw sewage. In short, the bacteriological counts in the sampled water are very high for recreational use and cannot be used for drinking for humans or animals.

At a meeting on 9 March 2023 between Joburg Water and the affected residents, it was reported that there is a need for partial or total replacement of pipes for which there is no money. In addition, a new Lanseria wastewater treatment works (WWTW) is being planned. The challenge is that the pipeline will take four years to complete and the WWTW will take 10 years.


“Our rivers are under threat and there is lack of urgency in dealing with sewage spills into our water. It is not acceptable for the government to allow this spillage to continue for four to 10 years. By then the river will be dead,” says Dr Ferrial Adam, Executive Manager of WaterCAN.

WaterCAN is exploring laying criminal charges against the City of Joburg municipal manager over the pollution in the Klein Jukskei, the lack of action and failure to improve the situation at the Bushkoppies and Goudkoppies WWTW, as well as over the water shedding affecting significant areas in the City.

“We need to be proactive and not reactive. It is clear that local governments are unable to fix this situation. We are calling on everyone to get involved. We cannot leave it in the hands of local government alone,” says Adam.

According to Julian Walker, a resident near the Zandspruit pump station, “the poor quality is a concern for small-scale farmers and fishers as both food and fish could be affected. Joburg Water should be testing more frequently and test downstream to assess the impacts of the overflows and spillage. As a community we need to look at other options.”

WaterCAN is calling for:

  1. An urgent intervention and investigation by the national Department of Water and Sanitation;
  2. The City of Joburg to provide short-term solutions to manage the sewage spills;
  3. The City of Joburg and its entity Joburg Water to build awareness on the problems of disposing of waste material in the sewers and stormwater drains.

Unhealthy rivers, threatened by waste and sewage, are now the norm. We cannot allow our rivers and river ecosystems to be destroyed. WaterCAN is embarking on a campaign to test water across the City of Joburg, targeting key reservoirs within the municipality that will begin in April.

WaterCAN website: www.watercan.org.za

A sound clip from Dr Ferrial Adam is available .

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