Government wants to ‘name and shame’ big polluters in South Africa

 ·15 Apr 2024

The Minister of the Department of Water and Sanitation, Senzo Mchunu, wants to implement a National Register of Polluters in hopes of tackling the scourge of pollution of the environment and water sources.

Mchunu said that a National Register of Polluters, which would ‘name and shame’ transgressors from both the private and public sectors is necessary to make people account for their actions. 

“We want those in positions of authority, Mayors, CEOs of companies to have their names put in the register so that they account for the neglect that leaves our rivers polluted,” said the minister.

Speaking to Water Services Authorities on 12 April about the Vaal River’s ongoing battle with invasive alien plants and the influx of pollution, which prompted the idea of a register, Mchunu said that the Vaal “is not just a vital water source, it is a lifeline for our communities, industries and ecosystems [and] its health is under threat from various sources, including wastewater discharge.”

According to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) 47 wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) have been found to be contaminating the Vaal River.

DWS Chief Director for Water Use Compliance and Enforcement, Anet Muir, told the SABC that this register “will greatly assist to also bring attention to our polluters… it does put additional pressure by linking who is responsible for our pollution,” as subsequent court action and penalties could follow.

Muir said that this is but one of the various interventions needed, saying that DWS is busy with “administrative enforcement” and other actions against polluters and monitoring water use as well as discharges into water resources. 

Recent enforcement actions include Govan Mbeki Municipality being slapped with a R200 million fine for pumping raw sewage into rivers.

This pollution has resulted in (but not limited to) the nutrification of water sources, the increase of blue-green algae (which is toxic), and invasive alien plant species.

The 2023 Blue Drop Report from DWS indicates that nearly half (46%) of water supply systems are not compliant with microbiological standards, resulting in drinking water contamination from sewage and bacteria.

This means that there is a risk of growth for viruses and parasites like Legionella and Cyanobacteria within these piped water systems and their sources. These present acute health risks, such as gastro illnesses with diarrhea usually being the prime symptom, cholera, dysentery, hepatitis A and typhoid.

The Klip River in Johannesburg south, which eventually leads to the Vaal River, has turned an almost shade of black and foams as a result of a Wastewater Treatment Work spilling sewage into a nearby wetland. Photo: Seth Thorne

Water pollution stems from several sources, including industrial pollutants, poor waste management practices, and the discharge or accidental release of waste from Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTWs) into waterways to name a few.

Muir said that the issues of pollution that DWS is trying to tackle is not a straightforward fix, as they have to deal with both the pollution itself and the polluters who are not meeting compliance requirements.

Mchunu highlighted the importance of proactive measures by every government tier to address water source and environmental pollution issues, and is optimistic that the establishment of a National Register of Polluters could hold polluters accountable and facilitate effective court actions against those who fail to comply.

Read: South Africa’s water crisis – experts warn about ‘futile fixes’

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