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Sewage pollution in the Northern Cape: entirely new approach needed

Sewage running down the streets where children walk and play is an example of the shocking phenomena that South Africans have become desensitised to. Ironically, it was sewage flooding a cemetery in Postmasburg earlier this week that caught people’s attention and made it clear that a new approach is needed. This is particularly relevant to the Northern Cape where water is scarce even in the good years. 

The photos showing graves under pools of sewage that a resident of Postmasburg in the Northern Cape Municipality of Tsantsabane posted on Facebook were shared 1500 times. The municipality has since solved the problem. Yet it once again emphasised how vulnerable communities are when sewage plants are not properly maintained. 

Most of the sewage plants in South Africa were designed and built in the 60s when a great wave of urbanisation and the installation of running water made it necessary. The general approach was that sewage water is a form of waste that must be done away with. Alternating between aerobic and anaerobic processes and sand filtration were used to remove pollutants from the water.

In some cases, the water was channelled through a biological filter of marsh plants before it flowed back into the rivers, but mostly the water was channelled to evaporation dams. These systems are characteristically expensive to develop and require a lot of energy to maintain. For the sake of economies of scale, all the sewage of large areas of towns and cities was pumped to centrally located sewage plants.

These systems have, however, come under immense pressure over the last few decades for two reasons: increased urbanisation lead to greater volumes of sewage than what was initially expected and planned for and the poor performance of local authorities means that sewage plants are not maintained properly.

Cases of serious pollution, like at Kimberly's Gogga pump station where there are constantly leakages and the recent incident in Postmasburg, serve to illustrate the problem.

The Northern Cape simply cannot afford to let any water go to waste. Sewage water must no longer be seen as waste that must be done away with; it must be seen as a resource that can be utilised.

Over the last two to three decades, numerous biological purification systems for sewage water were developed and are being used effectively in other parts of the world. The premise is to develop an ecosystem that becomes stronger and more stable over time and that is much less dependent on upkeep.

In exchange, plant products are produced for use in building materials, fuel and even as animal feed while clean, usable water is made available to the ecology.

In the Northern Cape, no new sewage system should be based on any other premise.

Dr Boshoff is an FF Plus MP and provincial leader in the Northern Cape

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