South Africa has a highly regulated water industry.  Unfortunately, it does not have full compliance. We are good at crafting regulations, but they are long, hard to achieve and covered in layers of typical government bureaucracy.

To help us understand, or confuse us, we have the following regulatory systems:

– Blue and Green Drop Reporting for freshwater and wastewater management, for which the last two years were held back before the recent municipal elections.

– The National Water Resource Strategy (2013), bringing together the management of all water resources and issues.

The latter is over 200 pages; contrast this with the UK’s Strategy for Water (2008) at 97 pages; our over-indulgence in regulations that, in theory, are great on paper, small on results.

It is no secret that the Cinderella of water is wastewater management. It is the smelly, unhealthy end of the resource.  If you are a water engineer, it is the one place you are assigned to if you stuffed up elsewhere or a place where new graduates want to get out of as fast as possible. Not surprisingly, it is covered by the Green Drop system, for obvious naming reasons.

Let’s forget about blue water, and concentrate on the green.

Trolling through the regulations and news services over the years begs more questions than are satisfactorily answered.  The DWS (lately renamed The Department of Water and Sanitation)looks after the health and well-being of our wastewater system, a combination of government and private consulting for water treatment plants.

At the two ends of the spectrum, there are the successes from the big metros of Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg, and the despair from the failures of the rest of over 1,000 plants in various degrees. There are successes in improvements in these plants, but far too many failures.  We are talking here of significant health hazards in our rivers and dams.  Take the Northern Works plant outside Johannesburg, which in November last year released raw sewage – not the first time – into the Jukskei River.

We are led to believe that two issues caused the latest spill, according to the DWS. One of the large pipes carrying raw sewage into the plant got blocked by rubbish. The pressure forced sewage out of manhole covers and into the Jukskei. The second issue came about as a result of the upgrades happening at the plant. Here, the main sewage pond overfilled with sewage, which then flowed into the nearby river. (Source: Mail and Guardian, 30-11-2016 ‘Northern Works sewage nightmare turns Jukskei black’).

Our social habit of not bothering about rubbish and the lapses in management at the plant contributed to the nightmare and led to a significant health hazard.


So, I want to ask some questions to save me fruitless investigations into the murky world of wastewater.

  • What IS the approach of the DWS? How does the department interact with its counterparts in Environment, Industry and Health for example?
  • Are the units affected by wastewater treatment working towards a joint approach, or are they each doing their own thing?
  • How can government departments be streamlined to accelerate the process of “getting things done”?
  • Are the various stakeholders setting and sticking to agreed goals?
  • Do the stakeholders limit the tedious meetings that bring no obvious solutions?
  • Are stakeholders fixing infrastructure rather than leaving it until it breaks?
  • Are the government skilling up DWS personnel to understand what needs doing and having the skills to do them?

Surely, if government departments had a more holistic approach to the impact each one has on the other, there would be fewer problems? Taking a holistic approach, looking at the “bigger picture” would be preferable to every department acting on its own. Doing things right first time saves time and money, neither of which we have it appears.

Instead of getting the basics right, we go in for grand schemes where we overreach ourselves. Look no further than the estimated R1 trillion build costs for nuclear power stations

The situation with wastewater is getting worse, and no amount of reports can fill us with hope for the immediate future. The time for action is NOW not when the crisis becomes so acute that we cannot manage wastewater at all.

Contact our team of environmental consultants in South Africa for more information about how we can help you with water quality management.