On a rundown street in Bertrams, in the heart of Joburg’s inner city, Thabo Motluhuneng peers over a graffiti-scrawled bridge at a stormwater drain by his feet.
The water flowing through the canal is a murky grey-brown and reeks of sewage – but he doesn’t seem surprised.
“This is the only colour of the Jukskei I know. It’s how the river looks all over the city – it’s this blackish, greyish colour.”
The stormwater canal is where the Jukskei “daylights”, or appears above ground for the first time. The source of the river, he explains, runs just a few hundred metres away under Ellis Park, but by the time the water emerges here, it’s already contaminated by sewage inflows from the CBD.
“This should be a special place because it’s so close to the source,” explains Motluhuneng. “But it’s not.”
He works as a supervisor for Paul Fairall, a riverine consultant and long-time champion for the Jukskei’s protection. “People in this city are so busy chasing around in their BMWs that they don’t know what’s going on in the rivers they’re crossing,” remarks Fairall.
“It’s only once you go down and see the rivers that you realise the terrible state they’re in.”
The 78-year-old is sitting in a wheelchair inside his flat in a Douglasdale retirement village. Last year, he suffered a small stroke and is now learning to walk again. “The work is pouring in. I haven’t lost the use of my brain,” he says smiling.
But the ailing Jukskei, he maintains, has already been lost. “The river is gone. It will take 100 years to correct itself if we start managing it now, which we’re not doing. The Jukskei and the Hennops are vying for first place as the dirtiest rivers in South Africa.”
One of Joburg’s largest rivers, the Jukskei flows northwards, moving into Bedfordview and meandering back to Joburg before it joins the Crocodile River flowing into the highly eutrophic Hartbeespoort Dam.
Its roughly 50km course through the city inexorably marks it as a casualty of Joburg’s massive urbanisation, its eroded waterways a repository for the city’s torrent of sewage, stormwater, litter, industrial waste and building rubble.
For water expert Dr Anthony Turton, not only is the Jukskei one of the country’s most polluted rivers, it’s also one of the “saddest”.
Its demise, he believes, is a metaphor for “all that is wrong in our society. Its malady is a complex amalgam of state failure upstream, including the hijacking of buildings by criminal syndicates that has resulted in the coupling between the sewage systems and the stormwater systems”.
“The grease and fat in the system is so massive that it will have to be mined out, and until this is done, the drains will continue to be unable to carry the volumes.
“Until the criminal hijacking of buildings is sorted out I can’t see the river being saved,” he says.
Dr Irwin Juckes, a microbiologist who monitors the river for Edenvale RiverWatch, agrees that the greatest problems are sewage pollution and flooding.
Water quality reports from the City of Joburg, he writes, show two peak inflows of sewage pollution into the river. “The first peak is at the source of the river in central Joburg. It comes from the hundreds of bad and hijacked buildings which have no services, so their sewage runs into the stormwater system.
“The second peak is from Alexandra, where decades of unplanned development has covered over access to the underground system and brought about over-capacity.”
Sewage also pours into the Jukskei from ageing infrastructure and a backlog of maintenance, and in some cases “the use of superimposed sewage and stormwater systems, with interlinks for access.
“It’s therefore common for sewage and stormwater to mingle if the interlinks fail”, Juckes explains.
Fairall says tests by the University of Pretoria on water in the former Bruma lake several years ago revealed 50 roundworm eggs in every litre of water tested and scores of potentially dangerous pathogens. “What the mayor (Herman Mashaba) is attempting to do by cleaning up these hijacked buildings can only help the river,” he says.
City of Joburg spokesperson Nthatisi Modingoane ac
knowledged that “persistent” sewage leaks from hijacked buildings ended up in the river system.
“The parameter of concern for the Jukskei is e. coli, an indicator for sewage pollution. The river has a very high bacterial load.”
Recent official quarterly results red flag e.coli at almost all sample sites as unacceptable. In Bez Valley, results show 2.4 million units of e.coli per 100ml and downstream in Alex 1.3 million units per 100ml. The required standard is 1000 units per 100ml.
The Jukskei, says Modingoane, is “under severe stress from anthropogenic (man-made) impacts”.
The council blames the river’s poor state on “sewage leaks and spillages from informal settlements and bad buildings in the inner city; root growth and ingress into sewer manholes; the ingress of stormwater into sewer infrastructure overloading the system and causing spillages and the vandalism of infrastructure.”
Chemical contamination also pours in from, among others, car washes and repair workshops and hydrocarbon contamination from fuel depots. Illegal dumping, also, is a huge problem.
Several experts, however, point out how many of the problems blighting the rivers and waterways in Gauteng can be blamed on the lack of proper management and control by officials.
Work has been done to try to restore the river, says Modingoane. This includes a litter trap in Bez Valley and the rehabilitation of Bruma lake upstream of Stjwetla informal settlement in Alex.
But Fairall charges that projects like these are poorly maintained.
In Stjwetla, Alex, Michael Mphoko* watches his neighbour toss a bundle of nappies into the foul-smelling river. Mounds of rotting waste ooze on the blackened, sludge-filled riverbank where fat rats scurry in the morning sun.
“There are no dustbins here, no services. It’s too dirty and when it rains we fear for our lives. We are really living a bad life here,” he says.
The council says the Johannesburg Development Agency has now appointed a consultant to design the alignment of Jukskei around Stjwetla “to remove all the shacks that are below the 1:100 year flood line, to de-congest the shacks and to provide basic services”.
A little further down the river, John du Plessis and Mark McClue, from Action for the Responsible Management of Our Rivers (Armour), walk in the picturesque surrounds of the newly-redeveloped Jukskei Park that runs along the river in Alex.
Du Plessis watches as parts of a car float down the river, frowning at the rubbish and cable piled opposite on a newly-reinforced riverbank.
“Here’s this beautiful park for the people of Alex to enjoy and connect with the river, but on the other side of it people are dumping rubbish,” he says, shaking his head.
The river runs grey and dirty here too. “Some people call it the Jukskei sewer but it can be a river and should be a river,” offers McClue.
Joburg, he says, is a transformed city. “We can’t take the river back to what it was because then we all have to leave. So we have an opportunity to learn from other cities in the world and fix this river.”
Armour was established as a result of an ecological catastrophe on the river in 2015: a three-month sewage spill from the Northern Farm sewage works that turned the Jukskei black. Consequently, Joburg Water embarked on a major maintenance and upgrade project.
Armour’s aim is for “clean, living rivers and waterways” in Gauteng. “What we’ve discovered in the past two years is the sheer size of this issue,” says conservationist Helen Duigan, a founding member of Armour with her husband, Anthony.
It holds monthly meetings with authorities such as Joburg Water to address problem areas.
“It’s not just about fixing Northern Works, it’s about fixing the pollution upstream and in the inner city, which Mashaba, bless his cotton socks, is trying to solve.”
At Northern Works, manager Ntokozo Mdluli insists it is “turning the tide” on spillages into the Jukskei, thanks to a multimillion-rand upgrade.
“The biggest issues we have are the blockages because of sewer abuse.”
He shows the shredded pickings from the plant’s new macerator: skips filled with rags, pads, tampons, pipes, mattresses, condoms and sponge.
“In the last few months, we’ve found the bodies of adults, three babies and one foetus in the system,” says Mdluli.
For McClue, who kayaks on the Jukskei, its reputation is far worse than it deserves. “We find fish, frogs, terrapins and leguaans in the river. It’s not dead and the whole point is that we want to (save it) before it does die.”
From his expansive home in Chartwell, Julian Walker smiles as he watches water birds flock on the river. “There’s not too much white foam today; the birds are bathing in the river and not avoiding it. This is as good as it gets,” he says.
This week the river was hit by another sewage spill, 200m from his home. “It breaks my heart,” says Walker.
Juckes, who increasingly finds fewer signs of life in the river, still has hope for its restoration. “The problem is that the sewage spills are so overwhelming that it’s hard to address anything else.”
Modingoane says the river’s catchment is an important ecological corridor. “Joburg is a water-stressed city. Protection of water resources is important to ensure water security as well as to ensure that the City does not negatively impact on its neighbouring municipalities and the Hartbeespoort Dam, which supplies water to some North West municipalities.”
In Bertrams, Motluhuneng says: “If everyone in the city can sweep in front of his door, the whole yard will be clean. That’s how we can save this river.”
By sheree bega. Source: IOL News