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Our toxic Rivers: Polluted no-man's lands filled with millions of tons of sludge and sewerage -

people's health, freshwater life and our endangered ecosystems all harmed.

By Willem Snyman

The Hennops River paddle - from source to confluence, the second-last leg: Hennopsriver valley to the Crocodile River mouth, 27th of July.

Braving the extreme cold and heavy pollution, an intrepid team set off early in the morning from River Place with two Kayks and two inflatable boats. A continuation of our six day trek that started in Kaalfontein in June, to follow Gauteng's longest and most polluted River from source to it's confluence in the Crocodile River and across the Hartebeespoort Dam - a fact-finding mission to reclaim our natural heritage.

Water-borne pollution sources

The condition of the Hennops is stinkingly bad - a sickly grey-brown color, forming white foam when churned up and filled with a thick black sludge. Massive plastic pollution has formed several large floating styrofoam-islands, so densely packed that one can walk across, masses of plastic bags hang wrapped around the trees.

By walking and paddling all the way down the Hennops we could clearly ascertain where all the pollution has been coming from, we looked for any hidden sources.

Part of the the sewerage pollution originates at source from blocked and overflowing sewerage mains mostly along densely populated wetland areas in Tembisa and Olievenhoutbosch, here most of the plastics also comes from, as rubbish dumped on the banks and into the streams. There are thee Waste water treatment works( Wwtw) on the Hennops, all their improperly treated effluent goes straight into the River. The largest one and by far the biggest polluter is the Olifantsfontein Wwtw in Ekurhuleni - one of their three modules hasn't been working at all for many years now and they have been constantly releasing improperly treated sewerage effluent, as well as larger spills in massive volumes. The other ERWAT plant is the Hartebeesfontein Wwtw which lies on another set of sources above the Rietvlei dam, a large source of pollution into this Dam, which is the drinking-water source of hundreds of thousands of people. The Sunderland Ridge Wwtw lower down in Tshwane is very often debilitated by the theft of their main-feed cable outside of their works, shutting it down completely for weeks, while untreated sewerage effluent flows into this, the middle part of the River.

The different problems at the Wwtws and their effects could be clearly seen, Olifantsfontein seems to be responsible for the massively thick, white foam coming down sixty kilometers and still reaching four meters in hight, as well as for the thick black sludge deeply coating and rotting on the river-bed. Sunderland Ridge produces masses of floating sludge hanging along the sides of the river, more than a meter wide along both sides for ten kilometers.

The scale of pollution is massive, yet all of this huge amount of sludge has been built up during only the last three months, after the last floods had washed away the previous lot downstream. Municipalities have not been treating their sewerage properly for many years now and have been dumping it in massive quantities into the River - hopefully some of the many millions that should have been spent over the years on treating this sewerage can be returned to the River to rehabilitate its life.

Pollution has exterminated almost all life in the once pristine Hennops, over the last five years, killing billions of creatures - even the last Barbel are now busy dying! Joining the dead rivers family of Gauteng, most of them lacking any life because of pollution - is the luxury of water-borne sewerage really worth this massive destruction of our natural world? Surely this must rank as one of humanity's worst and most destructive ideas, yet often toted as our best inventions, now essential to human dignity. Undignified to our planet, an obscene idea wasting massive volumes of freshwater by putting all our waste and chemicals into our freshwater system and sending it all down-river to the sea, most coastal cities only have a long pipes going into the ocean, there to suffocate aquatic life and poison ourselves and our foods. Our waste belongs on land, where it can enrich the earth, using for instance dry-composting toilets with micro-organisms to digest it into a rich humus that can be used to fertilize the garden.

Pollution is creating a scarcity of free natural resources to enslave us to capitalism and force us to now even buy our basic necessities like water in plastic bottles. Our food is unhealthy and highly refined to store it, sealed in plastic it is being shipped all over the world, no-one able to cope with the packaging which also ends up in the water. We must fight back to save our world, break free from these addictive bounds and reclaim our nature, to restore our earth and its innocent creatures, overwhelmed by human greed and short-sighted profit driven destruction, to exploit our people for financial gain and threaten the very existence of our planet.

A Riverine Nature Reserve

Even though we started a full day’s paddle from the last source of pollution it hadn't dissipated much - dead rivers cannot cleanse themselves and build up dangerous levels of toxicity in their waters. Lacking all the micro-organism that would have been able to break down poisons and filtered the water. These are the drinking and irrigation sources of many, as well as the life sources of all the free-roaming animals in the Reserve.

The area is still very wild, flowing through the pristine natural areas of the soon to be declared Crocodile River Reserve, an almost 3000ha area that is gaining legally protected status through GDARD under NEMPA regulations, as a Nature Reserve, the highest provincial category. This is mainly due to its amazing bio-diversity, much of it now under severe threat due to the severe levels of water pollution. The life-cycles of most animals are all intimately connected and dependent on fresh water - there has been a great decline across the whole spectrum, from insects to frogs, fish to otters and antelope. We've already witnessed a drastic reduction in bio-diversity amongst all the animals, even the trees are sick and dying. We'll have to start the restoration of life in the waters by returning the depleted micro-organisms on which all life depends. We must save our devastated freshwater life fast to rescue this whole interconnected web of life.

The river is still very beautiful though with challenging Rapids at every bend, we all got thoroughly soaked, even though trying to avoid contact with the water. In this hidden world that hasn't been paddled for many years the biggest dangers are man-made weirs, most of them broken into pieces by the enormous force of the water when flooding.

At the beautiful confluence area with high cliffs, a line of connection can be clearly seen, here the dirty dark brown waters of the Hennops contrast with the yellow color of the Crocodile - this apparently from a sand quarry's dumping on the Jukskei. At this junction some fish were suddenly seen coming to the surface, presumably from lack of oxygen. The Crocodile River is still in better shape, the plastic pollution however is shocking, tree after tree for ten kilometers are filled with plastics hanging from the previous floods, like old washing from the many alien Mulberry trees. We saw eddy areas where huge amounts of rubbish had accumulated, a principle we'd like to soon apply in the ARC weir litter trap, to be made higher up in the Hennops. Evidently there is also a great need for more litter traps on the Jukskei, which brings down most of the plastics here from Johannesburg; strategically placed at bends they can remove most of the plastics now hanging in the trees and decaying in the sun into harmful micro-plastics, giving off toxins into our water.

It felt like a holiday paddling through the amazing scenery of this beautiful natural area, as we passed the new Lion park we saw Wildebeest and two Giraffe on the riverbank as well as sadly a dead baby Giraffe in the River - even they are now endangered. What a great and tranquil way to do game and bird watching - one can really imagine what an incredible tourist destinations this would be if the whole area could become a large wild-life reserve, it is similar in size to Pilanesberg, yet right on the doorsteps of our largest metropolitan areas. It can be formed around the Crocodile River Reserve, at its center the spectacular nature of the confluence of three large rivers, their ancient meandering paths forming deep cliffs through the Schurweberg. Much is already protected areas in many smaller game reserves, one could unite these wth a proper perimeter fence and some entry gates, to form a large wild-life reserve, so that the bio-diversity of this critically endangered biome can flourish again. The Grasslands need their grazers back to properly survive, their highly diverse ecosystems depends on all their interlinked creatures. Eco-tourism can uplift the surrounding areas and their communities who can benefit with sustainable careers.

This area adjoins the Cradle of Humankind and is very rich in hominid remains, these rivers are the ancient perennial freshwater sources of our first ancestors and would have been their favored dwelling places. The amazing amount of fountain-water flowing off this High-veld ridge of the ancient Witwatersrand, must rank it as one of the great natural wonders of the world, yet it is highly polluted, hidden and forgotten - it must be protected to save our shared ancestral heritage.

At the mouth of the Crocodile, the River has become completely silted up in the last few years, what used to be very deep areas that one could jump into from the bridge are now ankle deep, the result of serious erosion problems upstream, presumably from development and earth-works.

The highly eutrophic Hartebeespoort Dam is now also completely blocked by Hyacinths, as far as the eye can see; for the last part of the journey we're still waiting for the wind to shift this mass of many square kilometers to the other side of the Dam.

What a great adventure to have seen the whole length of the River, we have gained a good insight into all the problems and their solutions, as well as the great potential of these Rivers as green life-giving paths through our lives.

This 8 hour part of the paddle was led by Mark mc Clue from Armour, the photographs are by Jacques Nelles of the Citizen who accompanied us, the boats and logistics were provided by Impact Adventure Africa, while Bluswirl helped to initiate the hike.

Thanks to everyone who have been involved in helping our rivers - by working together through our waters, we can still hopefully turn the tide against the rapid extinction of species taking place and save our natural and freshwater world.

Willem Snyman

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