Why Makhanda residents are taking their municipality to court

Sewage spills are an environmental and health crisis

Photo of woman in cast

Dambisa Nxopho is one of the applicants in a case to compel the Makana Municipality to fix the sewage crisis. Photo: Catherine Sofianos

By Cecile van Schalkwyk and Catherine Sofianos

24 January 2020

Sewage spills, some of which have been ongoing and left unattended for years, violate rights and force residents to live in inhumane conditions, putting health and home at risk. The Legal Resources Centre has launched an application on behalf of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) residents in the Eastern Cape to compel Makana Municipality to fix the sewage crisis.

Ten residents of Makhanda have approached the Eastern Cape High Court in a desperate attempt to compel the Makana Municipality, as well as the provincial and national governments, to fix the derelict and outdated sewer systems in the town. The town has been plagued for many years by overflow of raw sewage from municipal drains and pipelines. The residents are acting in the public interest and on behalf of the greater Makhanda community who are similarly affected by the spills and overflows.

Dambisa Nxopho is one of the applicants. The municipal drain in front of her property spills raw sewage onto her property and into her home. She has had to replace furniture that was ruined by the sewage and has struggled with a persistent infection in her leg following an operation. She has been told by the clinic that the reason the wound is not healing is due to exposure to sewage and dirty water. Ms Nxopho is not alone. Like her, many residents in Makhanda are at their wits end with the persistent spills and inaction from the local authority to find systemic solutions to the problem.

Mobisam, an app developed at Rhodes University, allowing residents to capture service delivery failures, reported 107 separate incidents of spillage in a six-month period in 2019 (though there were many more at the time not captured by residents who do not have access to the app). Thamsanqa Collin Phillips, from Extension 6 in the Joza Location, who was nominated by his community to speak on their behalf on the sewage matter, reports that there are complaints of spillages in “each and every street” of the neighbourhood.

“I would like the municipality to come and fix the pipes and drains in my area, so that our area can get dry again. If there is no sewage spillage people cannot get sick the way they are. There is one man who used to build houses who contracted TB. The area in front of his house is full of sewage spillage,” says Phillips.

The applicants share their homes with children and elderly family members who are particularly vulnerable to diseases spread by raw sewage. Two of the applicants care for their elderly mothers who are aged 88 and 91 respectively and reside in homes that are routinely flooded by sewage.

The spills are mainly caused by crumbling pipes that do not have the capacity to carry the sewage to the waste treatment works. The Belmont Valley and Mayfield Waste Treatment Works are also poorly maintained and unable to process the high volumes of sewage flowing from the town. This means that raw sewage is often released into the natural streams and waterways in Makhanda which pollutes the underground water or flows into the Bloukrans River. The infrastructure has deteriorated to such a degree that raw sewage now pools in the streets and floods the homes of residents, posing a serious health risk to the people living in Makhanda.

Despite the fact that the Makana Municipality has been aware of the problem for years, very little action has been taken to address the structural causes of the spills or upgrade the wastewater treatment works. While the municipality has taken some interim measures to alleviate the spills, it has not been consistent and the spills usually return.

Some spills have been overflowing for more than ten years despite residents sending numerous complaints to municipal officials. Residents say that their complaints are very rarely attended to, and when the municipality does respond, the interventions do not yield long-term solutions.

The consequences have been devastating for the residents of the town. There are a number of severe spills near schools; and children have to walk through the sewage on their way to and from school. Cattle, donkeys, and dogs are also exposed to sewage and graze in affected areas. In some cases, the continuous flow of sewage has compromised the structural integrity of homes and people have been forced to abandon rooms in their homes.

The terrible smell, made worse when the sewage is disturbed, or it is very hot or it rains, has an impact on the property values of homes, making it impossible for some people to sell their homes or rent out the properties. Phillips adds that some people have been forced to move out of their houses because of the spillages.

The legal intervention aims to secure some immediate solutions to the spills. This includes routine rodding of the sewage lines and unblocking of the drains that cause the spills as well as cleaning and treating the areas affected by the spills.

But long-term solutions are necessary to address the structural shortcomings that have led to this environmental and health crisis. The applicants therefore want an order compelling the municipality, the provincial, and national government to take steps to upgrade the waste water treatment works and find solutions to fix the crumbling infrastructure.

The municipality, together with the provincial and national governments, has a constitutional obligation to provide safe sanitation services that do not pose a health risk to people, and do not contribute to the pollution of the natural environment.

Van Schalkwyk is with the Legal Resources Centre. Sofianos is with the Canon Collins Educational & Legal Assistance Trust.

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.