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When a town falls apart: ‘Sick’ residents complain of raw sewage, crippling water crisis

2019-07-30 22:33

Welcome to the municipality where there is a crippling water crisis, the smell of raw sewage fills the air and a health hazard looms, writes Poloko Tau

The air is laden with an obnoxious smell that residents believe was aggravated by the wintry sunshine just after noon on Mandela Day in Colridge township on the outskirts of Vryburg, North West.

A network of rivulets flows down most of the streets of the RDP area in the township, often running past mountains of illegally dumped garbage.

The smell appears to worsen where garbage lies in the way of the trickling fetid liquid.

The smell, streets lined with murky waters and trash dumps almost all over have become features of the area falling under Naledi Local Municipality.

Water and sanitation responsibilities fall under the ambit of the Dr Ruth Segomotsi Mompati (DRSM) District Municipality.

EMPTY PROMISES

A few weeks before the general elections in May, ANC chairperson Gwede Mantashe visited Vryburg and got first-hand experience of the water crisis and sewage spillages.

On Twitter, he later described the latter as a “health hazard”, saying it should not be allowed to continue.

Hours later on the same day, in the evening, Mantashe, who was still in the area after vowing not to leave until the situation has been turned around, tweeted again, saying the spillage had been attended to and stopped.

Residents said they went to elections in high spirits with water flowing and no smell of spilling sewage.

Just over a month later, the erratic water supply and sewage spills have returned, much to their dismay.

THE HEALTH RISK

Standing close to a smelly illegal dump and over a small stream of filthy water in the street, Mbalenhle Valela’s fretful face said it all.

She was annoyed as she helped three young children, including her own, one at a time, cross over the stream of murky water, also releasing its own kind of insufferable stench.

Their grubby little hands suggested they had walked right through the grimy rivulet.

Oblivious to the health risk they were exposed to, these children had been playing on the heap of illegally dumped trash.

The liquid trickling down the streets comes from several points where raw sewage spills from under the not-so-tightly closed steel and concrete lids of manholes that lead to underground sewerage networks.

The spillages are caused by blockages somewhere in the system and the manholes are the nearest outlet for the sewage.

The fact that workers, including those doing maintenance, have been on strike for about five weeks at Naledi Local Municipality is also being counted as a contributory factor.

These are the sources of the agonising smell that many in the area appeared to be used to.

Mbalenhle Valela helps her three-year-old daughter to walk through a wide stream of smelly water from sewage spillage.Picture: Denvor De Wee

Valela, a young mother, believes her three-year-old daughter contracted TB as a result of the unhealthy environment they live in surrounded by garbage and dirty water lining the streets.

“I jumped when I realised she was not home, went on a frantic search and there she was, playing with two others on the garbage. She completed her TB treatment earlier this year and, having her play outside, I could see her get back there; something I can’t go through once more,” she said.

“I need not be a medical specialist to be sure that she got sick because of all the dirty water and the smell. The reason I took all other children away from the garbage is because I don’t want any other children in my neighbourhood sick.”

In the opposite street, Patricia Galoaya keeps her children behind locked gates.

“Officials will deny it but people are constantly sick here and this is why I take my whole family for medical tests, including TB, every three months. We’re struggling to get used to the smelly, dirty and degrading conditions we’re forced to live in,” she said.

“We were relieved when we got our RDP house but it appears service delivery has now stopped. If it is not the water crisis, then it is spilling sewage … this is not normal life we’re living.”

HUHUDI NOT ANY BETTER

The picture is no different on the other side of town in Huhudi.

You might be forgiven for mistaking large pools of water in some of the streets for the trail of an overnight rain, but that would be until you get out of the car to an unpleasant greeting: the pungent smell dominating the atmosphere.

A walk through the township, following the flowing water in search of its origins, ends up at a manhole.

Green grass can be seen shooting through putrescent sludge forming a dam around the manhole from which the spillage looks like bubbles popping from a hole of boiling liquid.

North West local government MEC Gordon Kegakilwe said one of the causes was the capacity of the infrastructure, which was never increased to accommodate the growing size of the area.

WATER CRISIS

Taps were dry during City Press’ visit and residents explained that water supply only returns in the early morning and the evening.

“While we need the water, it is a good thing we don’t have it constantly flowing 24 hours a day. When there is no water, people do not flush toilets that much which means we get less sewer spillage, but it gets worse in the morning and evening; and so does the smell which penetrates our houses and invades our dinners,” one resident said.

“We can live with less water as plans were often made for water to be delivered in trucks, but this smell is something else, which could end up with the whole community sick.”

THE VBS INVESTMENT

A press statement released by the North West provincial government in October 2018 confirms that DRSM invested R150 million with VBS.

It was further explained that “R100 million was from the regional infrastructure grant, R25 million from the equitable share-free basic services and R25 million was from the building fund”.

Mayor of DRSM, Boitumelo Mahlangu, is quoted in the municipality’s 2018/19 to 2020/21 medium-term revenue and expenditure forecast as saying:

“Uncertainty of the investments made with VBS could result in catastrophic results for the municipality, the bulk of the money meant for service delivery.”

In November 2018, City Press reported that there was an amount of R49 million allegedly invested with VBS, which was, and has remained, unaccounted for.

Read: VBS and the missing R49m

Records seen show that DRSM municipality transferred a total of R150 million to VBS earlier last year, but only R101 million was reflected as having been invested with the beleaguered bank by the Vryburg-based municipality in the SA Reserve Bank-commissioned report know as The Great Bank Heist.

Kegakilwe said the VBS investment was one of the reasons for the service delivery problems at DRSM.

“The municipality’s weakness is, they’re not doing what they are supposed to. This is the worst-performing of the four district municipalities in the province.”

Meanwhile, instability continued to reign in the municipality, with Mayor Mahlangu suspended by the council last week for allegedly ordering the return of a municipal manager who was suspended over the VBS saga, Jerry Mononela.

REMEDIAL PLANS

The word ‘water’ appears 160 times in the 61-page forecast expenditure document where, under “capital projects for Naledi Local Municipality”, just over R951 million is shown as a total estimate for water-related projects in the area.

However, less water is flowing in communities, despite all these plans.

Kegakilwe said all these were plans based on “unfunded budget ... they put the amounts on paper but funds are not there”.

While sitting on the current crisis, DRSM municipality was yet to get its allocated equitable share released by treasury.

“They need to comply first; adopt reports as council, account for the funds already used and convince treasury that they will be able to manage their equitable share effectively and spend it on what exactly. The department is already carrying the cost for some of the projects to address challenges in the area in a bid to ensure the public does not continue to suffer,” Kegakilwe said.

Municipal spokesperson, Joseph Motlhasedi, said there were plans to augment the water source and increase capacity to meet the demand in the affected areas.

Responding to questions on sewage spillage, Motlhasedi said “the district municipality does not have service that can assist in that regard” but that the engineering department had done some work in that area.

He added that funding has been sought to enable the municipality “to unblock sewers and replace the old pipeline”.

According to an explanation by Motlhasedi and Kegakilwe, Huhudi township and Vryburg are supplied from different water sources, hence those in town were not affected by erratic supply.

“Work has not begun to link the town and township supply systems and augment it with additional boreholes. Three teams have been appointed to unblock sewers as well,” he said.

Some parts of Vryburg are constantly under water Picture: Denvor De Wee

RESIDENTS’ GRIEVANCES

The affected communities recently embarked on a march during which they asked the provincial government to intervene in the “ongoing challenges that continue to besiege our community on a daily basis”.

Community leader Boy Boy Sejake said they were not happy that there was “no movement on long-term solutions to the water crisis” and that, instead of a permanent solution, the municipality was “resorting to a looting scheme through water tankering”, through which millions were paid for the supply of portable water to residents.

“All we’re asking for are basic things: consistent water supply and for spilling sewage to be fixed.

“Residents are hungry for proper service delivery and can’t continue living in these current inhuman conditions,” Sejake said.

TALK TO US

What can be done, in this sophisticated era, to prevent such deplorable and unhealthy living conditions?

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January 26 2020