The recent prolonged and widespread disruptions to our water supply – despite the sustained efforts by Amatola Water, MBB Consulting and the Makana engineers during the year – have exposed the sheer magnitude of the municipality’s neglect of our water supply. Embizweni reporter Emily Corke combs the minutes of the Makana Engineering & Technical Services Committee and finds damning evidence of decades of dangerous neglect.
Since the beginning of this year, engineers have been working on a R100-million emergency Water Intervention Project to rehabilitate and overhaul our dangerously dilapidated systems.
The money came from national government and is being administered by the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) because the Makana Municipality – which was placed under administration by the Government by invoking Section 139(1) of the Constitution last week – was not trusted with the money.
Writing on the Grahamstown Municipal Services Outage Reporting Facebook page, local water activist Daphne Timm says the crisis has been brewing for decades: “The problems with the water since September last year and right now are the result of 40 years of the lack of maintenance.”
But, how did we get to the point where we resorted to a massive bail-out by the national government for a service as basic as water, asks Embizweni reporter Emily Corke?
She found some of the answers in the minutes of Makana’s own Engineering & Technical Services Committee meeting from February this year. The pages of these reports are littered with the words ‘RISKS’ and ‘WARNING’ in bright red. These warnings have been issued to the Municipality for many years – and until now, ignored.
Sadly, these minutes are nowhere to be found on the Makana Municipality website. But, Corke has taken the liberty of scanning some of these pages and Embizweni presents them publicly for the first time below.
In a water safety assessment conducted in October 2013, neither the Waainek nor the James Kleynhans water treatment works (WTW) complied with the requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
James Kleynhans scored just 50% after a full site assessment. The chemical dosing lines were poorly installed which resulted in common chemical spillages. In general, health and safety standards were poor, with insufficient signage, uncovered manholes, lack of not safety rails, unmaintained fire extinguishers and no life jackets where the workers could not swim.
The conditions at Waainek were marginally better scoring at 54% but with the same issues of poor Occupational Health and Safety conditions and chemical imbalances in the water.
The water safety plan reported that no maintenance logbooks were made available despite the importance of identifying maintenance issues within the WTW. The plan declared that operational monitoring was insufficient at both water treatment sites as the water quality testing equipment was not calibrated.
As for compliance measures to the national standards of the SANS, the municipality was not compliant with national standards as it was only collecting seven sampling points once every three hours.
Perhaps the most worrying warnings in the in the October 2013 plan were the chemical imbalances in the water. The minutes of the Engineering & Technical Services Committee meeting in February 2014 include a warning in red type stating that abnormally high levels of manganese were detected in the some of the distribution sampling points in January and February 2013. The manganese levels increased five-fold, easily punching through the ‘failure’ threshold (see the dotted red line below).
Manganese is a mineral that naturally occurs in rocks and soil and is a normal constituent of the human diet. It exists in well water as a naturally occurring groundwater mineral, but may also be present due to underground pollution sources.
The Cape Town Department of Public Health (DPH) has set a drinking water Action Level (AL) for manganese of 0.5 mg/l to ensure protection against manganese toxicity. This AL is consistent with the World Health Organization guidance level for manganese in drinking water.
According to Cape Town DPH guidelines, exposure to high concentrations of manganese over the course of years has been associated with toxicity to the nervous system, producing a syndrome that resembles Parkinsonism. This type of effect may be more likely to occur in the elderly. The new manganese AL is set low enough to ensure that the potential nervous system effect will not occur, even in those who may be more sensitive.
According to Amatola Water’s Area Operations Manager, Chris Nair, in Makana there were incidences of manganese coming through the raw water source which were meant to be treated by an oxidation process at the WTW. If there are traces found in the final water it would normally give a slightly brown colour.
Additionally, there were chemical imbalances caused by the previously used chlorinating process. High traces of aluminium were previously found in the final water due to the use of aluminium sulphate, which Nair said was usually overdosed.
The turbidity of the final water also did not meet water quality standards.
Some of the recommendations for how the ECDC money is to be spent were made several years ago by Amatola Water when they were invited by Makana to assess the bulk water supply system in 2010.
According to Nair, Amatola made a number of recommendations at the time, including a proposal for a close partnership between Amatola and Makana.
“Most of the larger recommendations we put in place but for some reason the proposal for a partnership never materialised,” said Nair.
While Nair could not say whether the current crisis would have been averted had the partnership materialised in 2010, Amatola Water made recommendations to address the problems of maintenance and a lack of know-how.
Water quality improves
The Waainek Treatment Plant rose to 99.4% compliance with the national standards in April this year compared with a 54% rating for the same plant in October 2013.
One of the first steps taken in improving the water quality with national standards was correcting chemical imbalances in the water. The aluminium sulphate flocculation chemical which was previously used was replaced with a polyelectrolyte blend and controlled using a jar test system to prevent over dosing the water.
Amatola addressed the high levels of manganese by oxidation using chlorine which precipitates the metal in the water and allows it to settle out in the clarifier. Nair said that since the introduction of this process there has been little to no presence of manganese in the final water.
However, Dr Neil Griffin, research officer at the Institute for Water Research (IWR), pointed out that the Amatola Water tests did not test for all potentially health-threatening heavy metal contamination.
Four years ago, in February 2010 there were heated exchanges between a panel of Rhodes University professors and other experts who did not see eye to eye on claims at the time that the water was tainted by heavy metal toxins.