Sahrc's report into the Vaal River crisis

Twitter/ Elise Tempelhoff

No accountability for Vaal River crisis, SAHRC report reveals

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) deems the pollution at the Vaal River to be beyond acceptable standards.

Sahrc's report into the Vaal River crisis

Twitter/ Elise Tempelhoff

A report probing the pollution of the Vaal River finds that none of the government parties central to the saga has taken accountability for the pollution of the river which the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) says is “beyond acceptable standards”.


In a webinar hosted by the Mail and Guardian on Wednesday 17 February, outlining the contents of the report, it is revealed that the Emfuleni Local Municipality, the Gauteng Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) and the National Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) have over the course of the SAHRC’s investigation – which began in 2018 – shifted the blame to other parties – including one another – for the crisis at the Vaal River.


Emfuleni says they are not the only municipality which has contributed to the crisis, a point that is noted in the SAHRC’s report. The City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality as well as the Midvaal Municipality reportedly also directed sewage and wastewater material towards the wastewater sewerage systems situated in the Emfuleni Municipality – corroborating that these two municipalities do indeed add to the ongoing pollution.


The Department of Water and Sanitation confirm availing funds to Emfuleni to resolve the problem, but say the cash-strapped municipality has squandered the funds – highlighting the mismanagement issues at the Gauteng based municipality which have been attributed to political instability.

The panelists at the briefing – North West University, Johann Tempelhoff; Maureen Stewart from Save the Vaal, Samson Mokoena, Coordinator at the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance; and Shirley Mlombo from the Human Rights Commission – ultimately are in agreement that the buck stops with the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

It is this national department that grants and issues municipalities with licenses to run water and wastewater service and most importantly it’s the body that enforces and must ensure adherence to the National Water Act.

Blame shifting aside, all the parties concerned have been directed to implement certain recommendations at the behest of the SAHRC to salvage the situation. These parties have been directed to respond to the SAHRC on said recommendations within a 60-day period. Here are some of the recommendations in the damning report:

  • The National, Provincial and Local Government must take active steps to know and understand all of its constitutional and legislative obligations and to comply and implement them as is the duty of any a public servant or municipal administrator.
  • The Municipality must uphold the Rule of Law and Constitutional Supremacy in South Africa.
  • In the short term that DWS or Gauteng COGTA, together with experienced wastewater management specialists, and respective Treasury Departments must draw up a cost effective interim plan to urgently stop or limit the flow of sewage in the streets and homes of people living in the Emfuleni area and also into the Vaal.
  • The National and Provincial governments, for the medium and long term, should conduct a detailed needs assessment for the clean-up and rehabilitation of the Vaal. Such an assessment should be supported by experts including financial experts, to cost and make available a project plan and budget for the implementation of such plan on a short, medium and long term basis.
  • DWS must develop and implement policies and standards to deal with water crises in South Africa, and the contamination of the Vaal River in particular.
  • Vandalism and theft be regularly reported to the SAPS.
  • DWS should reintroduce the Blue and Green Drop transparent quality measuring system.
  • DWS must collaborate with DEFF and use the inspectors provided for in NEMA to investigate offences relating to water and sanitation, as they are likely to relate environmental damage.
  • In order to prevent a repeat of the issues, the Vaal River and the associated water infrastructure be declared as critical infrastructure as per the Critical Infrastructure Act 8 of 2019. Declaring the Vaal and the respective sewerage systems as critical infrastructure would ensure that it will be protected and restored.

READ: Final Report of the Gauteng Provincial Inquiry Into the Sewage Problem of the Vaal River


Approximately 19 million people depend on the Vaal River in different ways, with the Free State town of Parys being the lesser-known casualty of the Vaal Water Crisis.

Reports have indicated that drinking water at the Gauteng municipality is safe to drink because it comes from the Vaal Dam and undergoes an extensive purification process by Rand Water, while Parys which falls under Ngwathe Local Municipality, on the other end bears the brunt of the pollution with it a) being located downstream where pollution accumulates and b) with the municipality’s drinking water coming from the river.

Ngwathe, which faces its own set of governance issues, has long struggled to sufficiently treat the raw water it retrieves from the Vaal River for consumption due to several problems at its water treatment plant. The result of this is the widely circulated pictures of brown water coming from domestic taps in the Free State town.

In 2020 the Free State municipality roped in Sedibeng Water to oversee a mammoth project to “fix the Water Treatment Trident plant” which according to Naale is currently out of operation.

When rectified, this will assist the municipality in resolving their purification issues, making domestic water in the area safer to drink.