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Cholera outbreak shines light on poor plumbing risk

It is just a matter of time before South Africa experiences a very serious outbreak of cholera and other waterborne pathogens, such as salmonella, typhoid and hepatitis.

This is considering the critical state of the country’s waterborne sanitation system, which is being exacerbated by widespread illegal plumbing practices.

“When assessing the risk of waterborne disease in the country, the focus is usually on the lack of sanitation and water infrastructure in the rural areas, townships and informal settlements. While this may have been the cause of previous and the more recent outbreaks of cholera, illegal plumbing practices in the urban areas have also become a significant contributor to the onset of an imminent crisis. Over the years, there has been a marked increase in the number of illegal interconnections of sewer and rainwater systems across the country. This practice is a major contributor to the rapid deterioration of our waterborne sanitation system and urban water cycle, placing whole communities at risk of exposure to waterborne pathogens,” Steve van Zyl, National Technical Manager of the Institute of Plumbing South Africa (IOPSA), says.

IOPSA members are qualified plumbers. They will, therefore, never connect rainwater gutters and gullies to stormwater drainage systems and will advise property owners against this practice when asked to assist them to do so or when they see these types of installations on premises. Many property owners of all sizes do not know that it is illegal to discharge stormwater into the sewer system, although this is not an excuse for breaking the law. In other instances, property owners deliberately choose to ignore warnings against the release of stormwater into the sewer system. They are aided by unqualified plumbers who do not know better or unscrupulous operators.

Illegal house downpipe collection to municipal sewers is among the lead causes of stormwater inflows and groundwater infiltration into sewers in South Africa. It overwhelms entire waterborne sanitation systems, spanning collection and conveyance of sewage through to the actual wastewater treatment component. These were never designed to handle stormwater – and certainly not at the quantities that are currently being dispensed in sewers from the many roofs of houses in South African suburbs. They are already buckling under the strain of a significant growth in demand for sanitation services as cities continue to grow at an unprecedented rate. Certainly, lack of maintenance; inadequate planning and underinvestment in services delivery infrastructure; and poorly constructed systems are compounding the problem.

During heavy rainfall, there are overflows and sewage spills from sewer pipes that are filled beyond capacity and from overwhelmed sewage pumpstations. WWTPs are also flooded, and the effectiveness of the biological process used to treat wastewater vastly reduced. This, ultimately, leads to higher pollution loads being discharged into adjacent river ecosystems.

Eradicating illegal house downpipe connections to municipal sewers will help to alleviate pressure on the country’s waterborne sewage system.

Poor enforcement of plumbing standards and regulations by authorities has provided an ideal environment in which inexperienced plumbers can operate without fear of repercussion, or for property owners to flout the rule of law.

Notably, regulating the industry is also one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways of making an impact. This is compared to upgrading the capacity of existing systems and constructing new infrastructure which involves long lead times and is costly, bearing in mind stretched municipal resources.

The recent Green Drop report, the latest since 2013, reveals the true extent of the sanitation challenge that the country is facing. It has gone from bad to worse, with the need to intervene having never been more urgent.

The report shows that sewage treatment capacity has declined even further since 2013. This has resulted in the release of larger volumes of wastewater of a significantly poorer quality into the environment over the past 10 years.

Of South Africa’s more than 800 municipal WWTPs, almost half obtained a score of 30% or less for their performance. This means that they are in a critical state, while the average Green Drop score across all provinces was 50%. Therefore, half of the country’s raw sewage and industrial waste is not being treated to the required standards. To obtain a Green Drop Certification, WWTPs need to obtain a score of at least 90%.

Meanwhile, aged, as well as poorly maintained and constructed sewer systems are barely coping with the increased demand for sanitation services. This is evidenced by vastly diminished sewer collection and conveyance levels, with large volumes of sewage being discharged into the environment before it even reaches the WWTPs.

“Certainly, the lack appropriate sanitation and drinking water in the rural areas, informal settlements and townships are pressing issues that must receive urgent attention. This is considering the large role that these have already played in cholera outbreaks in the country, including the recent cases from Gauteng. However, in South Africa, waterborne disease is no longer only a ‘infectious disease of poverty’ as it is described in developed countries of the

world. It potentially impacts South Africans of all income levels. This real risk of a widespread outbreak of waterborne diseases is also being heightened by the decisions that are being made by suburban dwellers who are far removed from the townships, informal settlements and rural areas,” Van Zyl concludes.