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Battling ‘pure evil rotten sludge’

Saturday Star 3 November 2018 - THOBILE MATHONSI African News Agency (ANA)

Sheree Bega

Hennops river activist Willem Snyman is waging war on pollution with help from local communities

Hennops River battling 'pure evil rotten sludge'

A Half-empty bottle of golden brown liquid lies wedged between the seats of Willem Snyman’s dusty old Mercedes.

After offering it around, he takes a long swig of the probiotic.

“These are effective micro-organisms,” explains Snyman. “There’s a huge amount of black sludge in the Hennops river and on the riverbanks.

“We’ve been putting these micro-organisms in the wetlands in the past few days to try to break down the sludge.”

Snyman, described as the “intrepid” river ranger for Action for Responsible Management of our Rivers (Armour), knows the polluted river well: he lives alongside its tainted waters.

He runs the Fountain River Environmental Sanctuary Hennops (Fresh), a small non-profit organisation that works to clean the heavily contaminated river system.

Over the past decade, he says, massive sewage pollution tides have turned the Hennops, once Gauteng’s cleanest river, into a wasteland.

But that won’t stop Snyman’s indomitable quest to save the river. Last month in a 10-day blitz, virtually single-handedly and on a shoestring budget, he undertook the Hennops River restoration campaign, an emergency clean-up of the worst pollution hotspots along the river.

The aim: to restore the river by rehabilitating its spring water streams and wetlands from their permanent strong fountain sources along perennial streams to form a “living river” course. The cross-border project involved tackling highly polluted sites where the embattled river runs its dirty course through Joburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. Snyman and volunteers removed plastic and solid waste along the wetland sources before flooding eventually washed it down to the Hartbeespoort Dam.

For Snyman, healing the Hennops, dubbed the “river of faeces”, is a battle against the “evil” sludge coating the river, caused by failing wastewater treatment works and continual sewage spills from broken municipal infrastructure.

“Before we started, the river ran pitch black for six weeks,” he says, twirling his long, grey beard as he drives through Tshwane.

“My conclusion was that the river had died, that it had completely turned anaerobic… There’s so much sludge lying on the river. This is super rotten, pure evil black sludge that is so dense it stinks.”

But slowly, there are signs of the Hennops resurrection. In parts, the quality and visibility has improved.

“I’ve been getting so many calls from people telling me that the river doesn’t stink any more.”

The pollution hotspots include the Kaalfontein wetland in Ivory Park and the Duduza informal settlement in Ekurhuleni – both strong fountain sources of the Kaalspruit, the headwaters of the Hennops.

“They are both the origin of much pollution, solid waste and sewage,” he points out.

For his campaign, Snyman amassed volunteers drawn from impoverished local communities. Together, they cleared rubbish along several kilometres of the river, and Snyman challenged “self-styled developers” illegally selling “stands” on riverbanks.

The work also involved pouring around 600 litres of the micro-organisms, used by Joburg City Parks and Zoo since 2002, into the thick black sludge to combat it. “Using it has created a bit of debate, but I can see it has made quite a big difference… For me, it’s the only thing we have to fight with, other than removing the trash. No one else seems to care about the river.

“The micro-organisms transform the sludge into their food… A dead river builds up dangerous levels of toxicity – microbial colonies established in slow flowing areas will continually purify and consume toxins, re-establishing aquatic life so that the river can cleanse itself once again.”

Snyman tells how they hauled the putrid black trash out of the river. “For me, that’s the war, the fight against the darkness – that stuff is evil and for me, it represents the worst toxicity of our society.”

The Hennops is fed by perennial, crystal clear strong fountains, but they are instantly polluted as they emerge.

“It’s an unholy mess, a shame. I don’t think the river has a chance if those wetlands aren’t living and if those streams stay polluted… We’re sitting at the sources of these gigantic rivers. This is the source of the Crocodile system and the Limpopo system.

“It’s government’s prime responsibility to look after these rivers. You literally have to hunt these people down to do their job. That’s why for me the project was about being hands on. I’ve spent four years shouting at government to fix the Hennops and nothing has happened. So if you’re not up there, literally climbing into the trash heaps and getting your hands in the sewage, nothing will improve.”

He shows the Kaalfontein wetland in Ivory Park, where self-styled developers have in the past few months started erecting shacks on the wetland, choked with waste and building rubble, and where the waters run a foul, opaque grey.

“The wetland is being systematically filled in with building rubble, levelled. The poor are being exploited for profit in a continuing land grab. Much of the waste of the informal community has been dumped in the river, their shacks on the banks are in danger of being washed away when flooding occurs.”

The Green Scorpions confirmed this week that they are now investigating the illegal dumping, infilling of the Kaalfontein wetland, diverting of the stream and building of shacks in this area, following Snyman’s complaints.

For a moment, he is disillusioned. He walks to where the heap of rubbish bags, filled with waste taken from the river, rot uncollected.

“It’s so demoralising. We get the community in here, get the trash taken out of the river and then it doesn’t get collected by Pikitup. If you know the trouble it was to take that stuff out of the river, it was rotten beyond belief.”

In Duduza informal settlement, there’s a little bit more optimism.

Part of the stream that runs through the area Snyman had cleared with local residents is still in fairly good shape.

He speaks enthusiastically about the frog and earthworms he found here. “The water quality is fairly good.”

Here, residents complain there has been no waste collection since 1999.

“So, the people have been dumping everything into this beautiful little stream that’s crystal clear and comes from a fountain. It would take a year to clear this mess,” he says, looking out at the stream clogged with nappies, waste and rotting food.

After showing off his garden, an oasis of flowers and vegetables, Petrus Phangisa and his neighbours haul out shovels to help Snyman plant several trees along the sterile riverbank. Snyman envisions a communal park here, and this is a start.

“Since we started cleaning up here, it doesn’t smell so bad any more,” smiles Phangisa.

Janet Mangoedi, 56, too, happily plants a tree. “People only dump here in the river because there’s no waste removal,” she explains. “If we have a truck to take away the rubbish, we’ll keep the water clean. It’s too dirty here, and our children get sick. Many people have sinus problems.”

For Snyman, the clean-up is about taking a stand. “We had zero budget, we got some rubbish bags from the council and some masks from the Department of Environmental Affairs, but the people helped.

“This is not a lost cause, but we have only scratched the surface. To me, it’s been one of the nicest things, working with the poorest of the poor, getting into this sewage and physically tackling it like an enemy you have to engage.

“People here don’t want to live like this. They are working for free but still want to help clean up the environment.”

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