Overflowing sewage pollutes numerous settlements around the Eastern Cape city and makes living there unbearable.
“I find this as not a suitable way for people to live. And our life has been very difficult since this problem started. You cannot cook, eat or even sleep when the stink starts to hang in the air. In other moments it would make you randomly think that somebody inside your room has just farted – that’s how bad the stench becomes when it reeks out,” said 32-year-old, Sisanda Ligwa.
Ligwa from KoTwo-Rooms informal settlement shared with Elitsha what she and her neighbours have endured daily due to sporadic sewage bursts in NU 1, Mdantsane.
It is a long-standing problem of blocked sewage drains that has apparently been left unattended for years. The stink triggered a stomach-churning feeling when Elitsha visited the area recently. In other sections of Mdantsane and Duncan Village, spilled sewage leaks into local ravines and water passages that run through the two townships.
Residents attribute the problem to the endless disregard of their complaints by the relevant authorities of the Buffalo City Metro Municipality. You come to accept an abnormal situation as a standard living condition without plots where you can erect new shackhomes, one resident observed.
Residents of a few informal settlements in Duncan Village in East London attest to the same sh*tty situation. In a section of Duncan Village, Elitsha came across four drains overflowing with sewage flowing into a stream.
Residents stressed that the issue had also left them concerned about the wellbeing of their young children and that the continued neglect of the sewerage by the BCMM might result in the outbreak of more frightening diseases than coronavirus.
“It started in 2014 that the entire local sewer system had to be upgraded, as the drain next to us sporadically explodes every time four other drains we have up the road get blocked. “The stench becomes very strong, and overwhelming especially during the early morning, sunny days and in the evening,” said Ligwa.
Her two-room shack is frequently swarming with flies and mosquitos that cause them skin rashes.
“I do not know what we should do. We daily hear government officials emphasising that the best way to stay protected from coronavirus is by keeping our places hygienic, but our situation here is just the opposite of that. To make it worse we end up battling with uncontrollable flies and mosquitos overpowering us in our homes,” she complained.
Community leaders confirmed that they had reported the problem to the municipality but it recurred after every fix.
Zolele Tuba, a 24-year-old from Zakhele Informal Settlement in Duncan Village said she and her boyfriend had adjusted themselves to the stench after they erected their shacks near the banks of a water passage a six years ago.
“It’s difficult to accept the foul smell that gets emitted from the nearby small river.We eventually learned to adjust ourselves to this living condition as we could not find an alternative site where we could erect a new shack. But my serious concern is always about the wellbeing of my two-year-old daughter, Akahlulwa. “You cannot easily tolerate it; it causes huge discomfort. And will make you to be unable to cook, eat, take a sip of a drink or sleep
“We would appreciate it if the municipality relocates us to a much healthier environment if they cannot clean this filth up,” she said.
Nonzolo Makile, a 53-year-old who has lived in the area for more than twenty years said they are very scared to stay after they were informed that the coronavirus can be transmitted through exposure to open sewage.
“This is like a breeding ground for death-causing infections as the eight communal toilets down there are also currently blocked, said the mother of three. She also doubts that the BCMM could ever fix the problem: “They are very slack at improving other people’s lives. They are just disgracefully famous for corruption.
“They recently deprived us of the covid-19 Social Relief food parcels. We sadly watched their friends and relatives making turns to fetch it from Gompo Hall.”
A ward committee leader from the Holomisa Informal Settlement situated opposite Zakhele accused those whose shackhomes were near the ravine’s banks of complicating their own lives when Elitsha asked her for a comment on what action they have taken as local leadership to tackle the problem.
Fezile Qongwana, a 55-year-old father of three, said the foul smell had bothered them as far back as 2005 when he first settled in Holomisa. “On other days it chokes too much as if someone was stirring it with a wooden stick,” said Qongwana.
Samkelo Ngwenya, a spokesperson for the BCMM failed to respond to questions which were emailed to him and did not answer his phone.
Mkhuseli Nongoko, who heads the municipality’s sanitation department for Duncan Village and Mdantsane, said they were aware of the recurring problem. “Drains block regularly in the areas you have mentioned and we have been unable to fix them. In Mdantsane we could not access certain locations where the drains are thick with bushes. In another zone with an overflowing drain our staff stumbled on illegal electricity connections and that gave us some difficulties when we tried to attend to it last November. We must now first get the electricity department to disconnect the wires before we can fix that,” said Nongoko.
The bigger problem, he said, is residents shoving unsuitable solid waste into the sewer and causing it to block constantly. “And that is always the case we experience at Mdantsane and Duncan Village, especially with Duncan Village’s informal settlement [who] frequently put wrong substances into the drains because of the informalness of the sections where the problem occurrs.
“It is an everyday problem and you cannot resolve it by continually unblocking the sewer.It is the way people are situated and you can eliminate it by building the area anew,” he said.
Dr Jo Barnes from the Department of Global Health, Health Systems and Public Health at Stellenbosch University said it is concerning to find residents exposed to sewage spillage because health experts overseas and locally have found the infectious coronavirus in sewage during their research studies.
“Where sewage is spilled into the environment, it can make people ill. Any such widespread illness due to pollution in a community like diarrhoea will weaken the inhabitants and make them more susceptible to pick up the coronavirus.
“It is a very dangerous situation and carries great health and environmental health risks. It is an embarrassment to our country because we find this problem widespread in South Africa and it appears to have been allowed to continue for so long without any effective intervention by the government,” said Dr Barnes.
Other common diseases she linked to exposure to raw sewage include ear, eye and skin infections. Pregnant women, the aged, those with HIV, TB, and chronic conditions such as diabetes or liver disease are more vulnerable as well.
She urged the authorities to educate communities on how to prevent sewage drain blockages and get the relevant departments to do their job efficiently.