In last week’s Grocott’s Mail, we published a story about water quality tests commissioned by the Democratic Alliance (DA) that revealed dangerous E.coli counts in local rivers.
In this week’s edition, we publish a ‘Right to Reply’ by Executive Mayor Yandiswa Vara, which “expresses Makana Municipality’s disappointment” with DA Ward 8 councillor Cary Clark for publishing the results of this research.
We believe the dissemination of this research was crucial because untreated sewage from the dysfunctional Belmont Valley Waste Water Treatment Works poses a severe threat to humans, agriculture and ecosystems.
However, some municipal officials and councillors later castigated Grocott’s Mail for publishing the article as it “spread panic in the community”. They said many local people misunderstood the report to mean that our drinking water might be contaminated.
Nowhere in the report did we state that the drinking was contaminated. But as professional public communicators, we took the Municipality’s criticism seriously. We recognise that many might be unaware of which rivers source our drinking supply. And we regret that some readers misunderstood the nature of the threat.
We published the Mayor’s ‘Right to Reply’ and offer this second story about Cary Clark’s research, which is more precise and explicit about the nature of the problem and the government’s plans to address it.
Please note that this does not mean there isn’t a severe problem at the Belmont Waste Water Treatment Works. There is – as is evident in the story below.
Rod Amner, editor Grocott’s Mail
High levels of E.coli have been detected at five of seven sites tested along the Kowie, Blaaukrantz, and Matyana rivers. None of these rivers flows into dams that supply Makhanda with drinking water. But, they flow past animals, crops, and ecosystems in Makhanda and as far away as Port Alfred and pose a risk of spreading waterborne diseases.
The source of the E.coli is untreated sewage overflowing from the dysfunctional Belmont Valley Wastewater Treatment Works.
Research commissioned by the Democratic Alliance (DA) and conducted by Rhodes Univesity scientist Associate Professor Roman Tandlich found E.coli counts of 280, 1000, 1800, and 30 000 colony-forming units (CFU) in samples taken from five of the seven sites, according to DA Ward 8 councillor Cary Clark.
According to a News24 report, Tandlich said counts of 100 or more are dangerous to humans and animals, and many of the sites are “near human settlements or are crossed by animals and people daily. He said he was concerned that some locals did their laundry in the rivers and some Belmont farmers used the water for irrigation.
Certain strains of E. coli can cause symptoms including diarrhoea, stomach pain and cramps and low-grade fever. Some E. coli infections can be dangerous.
In a statement criticising Clark for releasing the research results, Makana Municipality Executive Mayor Yandisa Vara contradicted Tandlich by saying that spillages from the Belmont Valley WWTW do not affect the Makhanda community, “but communities downstream, including in Ndlambe Municipality”.
“This is a situation the Makana Municipality is not proud of; hence we are continuously engaging relevant stakeholders in dealing with the situation,” Vara said.
According to Eastern Cape Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) MEC Zolile Williams, there hasn’t been functional wastewater treatment at the Belmont Valley Works since 2014, when four biofilters stopped working. In response to the recent parliamentary questions the DA submitted in the Eastern Cape legislature, Williams said three of them collapsed, and one with a rotating arm malfunctioned. In addition, the digester system is not functional. Due to security gaps, the disinfection room was vandalised, he added.
Clark said Belmont Valley required a R230 million refurbishment to get it working and upgrade its capacity from 5.6 to 17 megalitres daily.
According to MEC Williams, an interim project to repair the facility has been approved through the municipal infrastructure grant. For the much-needed upgrades, the Municipality is finalising a feasibility study and is looking to the Cogta and water and sanitation departments to fund Phase 1 of the project.
Mayor Vara confirmed that the Makana Business Plan for the 2022/23 financial year included “plans to kick start refurbishments and upgrades, with the limited funding of R31 million, which will assist us in doing Phase 1. This will ensure that primary treatment is taking place whilst awaiting long-term solutions.”
She went on to say it was “rather disappointing” that councillor Cary Clark “used her political cap to cause panic and attack the Municipality rather than sharing with her constituency and the public what she and the Council she serves in are doing to resolve the problem”.
The 2020 ‘upgrade’
In 2020, Grocott’s Mail reported that the Belmont Valley Wastewater Treatment Works, built in 1969, was undergoing repair work in an R4.8m project. It entailed the erection of an electric fence around the entire plant to secure it and the installation of additional aerial lighting fixtures. The upgrades included repairs to:
- Four supernatant pumps;
- The emergency overflow pipe;
- Two collapsed biofilters;
- The distribution arms of the two biofilters;
- Leaking and breach of maturation ponds;
- Sludge drying beds;
- The chlorination system.
When Grocott’s visited the plant, the new electric fencing was in place, and workers at the plant were clearing blockages. They told us they did not have any personal protective equipment for cleaning the blockages, including boots and gloves.
Meanwhile, Clark said the DA would also write to the Green Scorpions to request immediate intervention.
“This is an environmental and economic catastrophe waiting to happen. The discharge of sewage into rivers could result in the water becoming so contaminated that it will no longer be fit for use as an irrigation source for farmers,” Clark said.
“The people of Makana are facing a dire health crisis due to the municipality’s inability to deal with raw sewage flowing into local rivers and streams.”
Discharging raw sewage into a natural water resource is also illegal in terms of the Constitution, the National Environmental Management Act No. 107 of 1998, and the National Water Act No. 36 of 1998.
Clark said sewage spillages into our rivers resulted from the inability to cope with the sheer volume of sewage flowing through the Belmont Valley plant.
Makana Municipality scored an appalling 9% in the 2022 Green Drop report benchmark test – down from 62% in 2013 when the last report was released.
The Green Drop report is an incentive-based regulation spearheaded by the Department of Water and Sanitation that monitors wastewater networks and treatment systems.
A wastewater system that achieves over 90% is regarded as excellent, while a score under 31% is considered a dysfunctional system requiring appropriate interventions.
In May, Rhodes University Institute for Water Research PhD researcher Mary Chibwe told Grocott’s Mail that poor wastewater treatment in Makana was a public health risk.
“The poorly-treated wastewater is disposed of into the river, affecting animal and human health. Wastewater is discharged into the Blaaukrans River, a source of water for animals (cattle, goats) and irrigation for farms along the river banks,” Chibwe said.
This river, which flows through Belmont Valley, joins the Kowie river, which makes its way to Port Alfred with its millionaires’ marina at the mouth.
“The water is used to irrigate crops sold to the public for consumption. If poorly treated wastewater is discharged into the Blaaukrans, the pathogens in sewage end up in river water and consequently on irrigated crops.
“Animals which drink this polluted water may transfer these diseases to humans when humans consume meat and milk or get exposed to animals’ faecal matter (animal faecal matter is common on the streets of Makhanda).
“Bacteria such as Campylobacteria and Vibrio Cholera can be transmitted from polluted water to humans,” Chibwe said.