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Transforming Society

Securing Rights

Restoring Dignity

Human Rights Commission becomes more muscular in tackling water violations

23 November 2018

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is taking its role seriously as a leader in protecting basic human rights as it steps up to probe a purported case of the violation of the right to access clean water and a clean environment, and to human dignity.
The institution is strengthening awareness of the critical importance of water as a basic human right as it investigates claims that residents in the Vaal region have to contend with raw sewage spillage and environmental hazards.
The SAHRC’s mandate is to oversee, investigate and report on any suspected violations of human rights. The commission is empowered to take steps to appropriately redress where this is found to be the case.
Now the commission is examining whether or not the state of the Vaal river violates or threatens human rights, which SAHRC head of advocacy Phillip Molekoa believes it does, based on evidence found so far.

Following allegations of about 150 megalitres of raw sewage spilling into the river daily, the SAHRC undertook a site inspection of the Vaal river in September and started calling for oral and written public and stakeholder submissions on the contamination.
“The site inspection has revealed a prima facie violation of the rights of access to clean water [and a] clean environment, and to human dignity,” he tells Engineering News.
Human rights are the basic protected rights that everyone has. A list of human rights is outlined in the Bill of Rights, Chapter 2 of the South African Constitution.
Years of neglect, a backlog in infrastructure projects, a high unemployment rate and the subsequent failure of residents to pay for services, as well as a high level of migration into the region, have severely strained the Emfuleni local municipality’s capacity and ability to ensure a high-quality supply of water, Molekoa adds.
Earlier in September, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) said it was “seized” with finding solutions to the Vaal river pollution, while civil action organisation the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) started calling on the SAHRC in September to order an intervention and financial rescue plan for the Emfuleni local municipality.
Outa made written and verbal submissions to the commission on the suspected collapse of Emfuleni’s finances and service delivery, highlighting the disrepair of wastewater treatment plants that is leading to raw sewage flows into the Vaal river, Kliprivier and Rietspruit.
“The pumpstations can no longer pump the effluent to the plants, owing to cable theft, vandalism and irreparable electric motors, causing them to overflow,” Outa points out in its submissions.
The group is requesting the commission to order the Gauteng government to intervene in Emfuleni through the implementation of a financial rescue plan and a turnaround strategy package that involves the community and civil society, says Outa local governance manager Michael Holenstein.
In a strikingly similar manner, the SAHRC also headed to Randfontein in this month following complaints by residents that raw sewage was flowing from the Randfontein sewage processing plant into Tweelopiespruit.
“The residents allege that raw sewage that enters the plant is let into the river by the Rand West City municipality without any treatment of the effluent and the untreated black water finds its way to the Hartbeespoort dam,” the commissions explains.
A Closer Look
According to the SAHRC, the inquiry will make findings on, report on and make recommendations on whether there are violations of the rights, specifically those enshrined in Section 24, of residents consuming the water, the impact on citizens living along the Vaal river and within the Emfuleni local municipality and businesses operating along the river.
“The commission will further investigate whether the municipality has failed in its duty to ensure that people living in the proximity of the Vaal river catchment area are not exposed to a harmful environment and [the] role the provincial and national governments have in preventing the continued pollution of the Vaal river,” Molekoa says.
The scope of the inquiry also includes investigating the impact of the continuous flow of raw sewerage on the river’s environmental integrity and ecosystem; the pollution of the river as a result of the industrialisation of the upper Vaal and any other industry whose by-product or waste ends up in the river, either by design or by negligence; the short- and long-term impact of the flow of sewage into the river and its catchment area; whether the continuous pollution of the river should be classified a disaster under Section 1 of the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002; and the impact of inadequate human resources at the municipal wastewater treatment works.
“The commission must require relevant organs of State to provide information on the measures that they have taken [to ensure] the realisation of the rights in the Bill of Rights concerning housing, healthcare, food, water, social security, education and the environment,” the scope document outlines.
The SAHRC will obtain both written and oral submissions from identified government departments, State entities, business chambers, communities and interested parties to fully address the issues for investigation.
An inquiry was held at Stonehaven on the Vaal in September as part of the commission’s investigation to engage the representatives of the municipality and obtain first-hand information from residents to verify the validity of these allegations.
Final written submissions must reach the commission by November 30.
The commission is expected to release its findings in due course.
The DWS, which has made R20-million available to Emfuleni, notes it will make itself available for “any and all interaction” with the commission.
In August, Engineering News reported that the DWS, together with Rand Water, the Gauteng provincial government and the Sedibeng district municipality and the Emfuleni local municipality, was working towards improving the state of the Vaal river and the Vaal dam.
The department has already issued five notices and six directives to the municipality in relation to the sewer spillages along the Sedibeng sewer scheme.
The DWS is also looking at sourcing additional funding for operations and maintenance to complete the construction of Module 6, and complete the upgrade of modules 1 to 5, which are not operating at full capacity.
“We are dealing decisively and urgently with the water crisis [affecting] the Vaal river system. Our immediate focus is to mobilise short-term financing by reprioritising funds and increasing capacity,” Finance Minister Tito Mboweni added in his inaugural mini Budget Speech last month.
He secured approval for military support from President Cyril Ramaphosa and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula to assist with engineering and other expertise to resolve the crisis affecting the Vaal river system.
“The generals in charge have already started working on solutions. Water is critical. Current water delivery models are not working in many cases and we need to consider new ideas and models,” he comments.

Source: Engineering News

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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