Faeces in the kitchen: South Africans call for better sewage systems

JOHANNESBURG, (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Raw excrement, condoms and sanitary products regularly spill into homes and parks, South Africans said ahead of Friday’s World Water Day – just some of about 4.5 billion people globally without safe sanitation, promised for all by 2030.

Residents are lobbying for urgent rehabilitation of sewage works by South Africa’s Department of Water and Sanitation, widely criticised for lack of investment, non-payment of contractors, poor revenue collection, water theft and leakage.

“We have had water flowing into our street and home for the last three years,” Heather Crosley, who lives in South Africa’s biggest city, Johannesburg, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“When it rains heavily, the manhole lids blows off; sewage rushes down the road and sometimes comes into our kitchen. We have found condoms, tampons and faeces in our kitchen on more than one occasion.”

Under global development goals agreed in 2015, governments pledged to provide access to water and sanitation for all by 2030. But three in 10 people worldwide do not have a water source free from faecal and chemical contamination.

The spokesman for the water department, Sputnik Ratau, said setting up an independent regulator to improve management was “paramount”, although he did not have a specific timeline.

“The Ministry and Department are seized with the work of ensuring this comes to pass,” he said.

Access to water is a hot topic in South Africa – and a growing number of countries hit by climate change, burgeoning populations and poor governance – as drought last year triggered warnings that Cape Town’s taps could run dry.

In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, residents often see untreated waste water and excrement flow into tributaries that lead to the Vaal River, one of the country’s main water sources.

“In Snake Park, sewage is currently flowing into a community-built park so the children have nowhere safe to play,” said community activist Tiny Dlamini.

Untreated water can cause diarrhea and cholera, which can be fatal, particularly for children.

About 56 percent of South Africa’s waste water treatment works are in a poor or critical state, said Mariette Liefferink, head of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, which campaigns against water pollution caused by mining.

“This is a perfect storm of mismanagement that currently impacts 14 million South Africans without access to decent sanitation,” said Christine Colvin, a water expert with the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa.