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Residents fume over sewage-filled Bryanfern Spruit

Bryanfern residents mulling legal action against City of Johannesburg as fears grow over health implications of leaks in river

Members of the Bryanfern community are at their wits’ end over the huge amounts of sewage flowing into the Bryanfern Spruit and the threat it poses to residents, communities further downstream – and even Johannesburg’s water supply.

The section of river between the N1 highway, Oxford Road in Ferndale and Main Road in Bryanston has experienced regular spills in the past five years, but the situation has worsened considerably since January 2023. The smell of raw sewage regularly pollutes the valley.

In the broader area, there are more than 80 sewage leaks between the Klein Jukskei, a tributary of the Jukskei river that ultimately runs into the Hartebeespoort Dam and Bronkhorstspruit rivers.

Unless the matter is addressed as a matter of urgency, the Bryanfern Residents Association says it will have no option but to seek legal advice.

Residents and local DA councillor Emi Koekemoer have repeatedly brought sewage leaks to the attention of the City of Johannesburg, but the shambolic state of the municipality and empty city coffers mean the crisis continues unabated.

The residents’ association is deeply concerned that a repeat of last year’s Hammanskraal cholera outbreak, which claimed 20 lives, could occur in the area.

In 2023, the results of three separate water audits – the Blue Drop, No Drop and Green Drop reports – were published by Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu. Among their findings was that at certain points in 2022, it was not microbiologically safe to drink the water in 46% of South Africa’s municipal systems.

A department press release noted that 64% of wastewater treatment works were “at high or critical risk of discharging partially treated or untreated water into rivers and the environment”, adding that this posed risks to human health: “Cholera outbreaks are normally associated with wastewater pollution of water resources”.[1]

“The situation in the Bryanfern Spruit is an accident waiting to happen,” said local resident, Paul Hanly.

“It’s been so bad that during the late afternoon or early evening, you can’t even sit outside because of the smell. Hundreds and hundreds of residents are affected by this.”

The problem is particularly severe during winter as there is no rain to wash away the awful smell during the dry season.

Residents had been patrolling the riverbanks to find the breaks in the sewerage system, he said.

A leak found upstream had been repaired but then occurred again. That matter was first escalated on November 8 2022 but there have been 28 escalations since, as well as 19 additional escalations to the Johannesburg Water.

No action had resulted.

Koekemoer pointed out that public entities like Joburg Water had a service level agreement (SLA) with the City that clearly stated that sewage leaks needed to be repaired within 48 hours and burst pipes repaired within three days.

“They have an SLA that they must adhere to,” she said.

“Councillors have WhatsApp escalation groups that include depot managers, regional managers and usually the managing director of the company. It’s the councillors’ way of saying there’s an issue that the City is not paying attention to. But nothing happens.”

She had also raised the Bryanfern spruit sewage problem at three councillor forum meetings, on June 29, August 29 and October 24 last year. She was told that the issue would be investigated and she would receive feedback.

“Since then, nothing has happened,” Koekemoer said.

Even section 79 committee meetings, a councillor’s main oversight mechanism in terms of receiving reports, had yielded no results.

Hanly said the catastrophic state of the municipality was now having a direct impact on the health of residents and the environment.

“Year after year they are spending more and more and more on their operational budget, in other words, staff salaries and patching up problems, rather than on capital expenditure. Where they are supposed to be going and replacing these pipes, they’re doing patchwork fixes instead, if they actually do anything at all.”

As it was, there was only one TLB digger servicing leaks and burst pipes at Joburg Water’s Randburg depot. This covered a large area that included Ferndale, Randburg, Bryanston and all the way to Riverlea.

“There’s no money available to buy more or invest in more skills. The City is running into bankruptcy at this point,” he said.

“But they are violating so many health and safety conventions. We believe they are in contravention of 16 environmental laws.”