WITNESS: Cleaning up the iconic but highly polluted Jukskei River

The Jukskei River in Johannesburg is as polluted as it is iconic
Efforts to clean up the Jukskei River are to be applauded but fall far short of what's really needed to return it to the former glory so many Johannesburg residents still remember writes LELYZAVETA IVANOVA
Water quality monitoring has revealed a staggering 1.5 million E.coli per 100ml of water just downstream of the Alexandra Township

The Jukskei River is one of the largest, most influential and iconic flowing waters in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. It originates near the city centre, passing through suburbia along the eastern edge of the city, and then becoming a tributary of the Crocodile River further downstream. Ultimately, its waters drain into the Indian Ocean.

Being a well-known name to most people in the city, the Jukskei is as polluted as it is iconic. Despite not carrying plastic chairs and house debris (except in times of flood), it does carry an immensely high amount of raw sewage and resultant E. coli.

The first major sewage source comes from the city centre, right in the headwaters of the river: ‘Squatters have moved into the city's dilapidated buildings with no functional toilet facilities, succumbing to the bucket method' is the assessment of Dr Gavin Snow, a lecturer at University of the Witwatersrand and specialist on river health.

The second sewage source is another area of poverty and very limited infrastructure - the Alexandra Township - where overcrowding has caused some residents to build their homes right on the water's edge, flushing their toilets' contents into the shallow waters of the channel.

Water quality monitoring by the city's water provider - Johannesburg Water - has revealed a staggering 1.5 million E.coli per 100ml of water just downstream of this informal settlement (while natural concentrations in the river are meant to be closer to 500 per 100ml).

It is not all doom and gloom for the Jukskei, though: the sewer line from the city centre is being improved by a Johannesburg Water-led project, with hopes of decreasing the pollution levels reaching the river. Waters draining the Alexandra Township, alongside several other rivers in the vicinity, are cleaned out substantially by a Johannesburg Water wastewater treatment plant.

Arranged by community-based environmental organisations, local initiatives that rally the communities to collect litter and poster campaigns promoting the health of the Jukskei are a relatively common occurrence. By the time its waters merge with those of the Crocodile River, much of the worst pollution has been removed.

Despite that, more work is needed. Current E.coli levels just downstream of Alexandra are unacceptably high in the words of Dr Snow, "They pose a major health risk to anyone making the slightest use of that water".

To effectively address this problem, the pollution sources must be targeted. While it is true that clean-up operations organised through citizen efforts do exist and are run on an almost annual basis, "they always fade and don't target the source" warns Dr Irwin Juckes, a lead river monitoring specialist at the Edenvale RiverWatch. That means: better sanitation measures are necessary.

Where dumping of raw sewage is an issue, adequacy of service delivery must be questioned. The people are increasingly aware of the health risk the river poses, but are unable to improve their own usage of the water because they mostly have no alternative infrastructure facilities. Johannesburg Water admits that its attendance to blockages is more reactive than preventative - a problem when those are frequent and have clear consequences for the nearby waters.

Water quality monitoring has revealed a staggering 1.5 million E.coli per 100ml of water just downstream of the Alexandra Township

This problem is not unique to the Jukskei, but its proximity to the city and its outputs do make it a higher risk. Other Johannesburg rivers, such as the Braamfontein Spruit (a popular stream following the western edge of the city), are either further from the busiest part of city or located in slightly ‘safer' locations because of the surrounding parks and other green spaces, which is not the case near the Jukskei. So although all rivers in the region deserve regular monitoring and active prevention of pollution, some have a more pressing need for attention.

The Jukskei is well-known to many Johannesburg residents; many have a feeling of neighbourly friendliness towards this meandering beauty with rocky banks (myself included). However, it is not faring as well as it deserves to, and needs help to rejuvenate and return it to its former glory.

Dr Juckes believes the local council is best equipped for dealing with this pollution, and Dr Snow agrees: "Municipal enforcement is key here".

I personally am a big supporter of community-based action, but perhaps in this case it really does come down to something we don't see nearly enough of: an efficient service delivery...

This Author

Ielyzaveta Ivanova is a 20-year-old biology graduate, born in the Ukraine but now living in Johannesburg

WITNESS is our new Blog series, which invites contributors to explore the ecological and social impact of issues currently on their radar


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