Searching for the source of the Jukskei’s pollution

Part 1: The upper river

Searching for the source of the Jukskei’s pollution
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I ended my last blog post, which detailed my search for the source of the Jukskei, on a bridge overlooking a stormwater canal at the corner of Queen Street and Sports Avenue in the central Joburg suburb of Doornfontein.

This is the first point at which the Jukskei River emerges above ground. It’s no more than 500m from the river’s source, but already the waters are a blue-grey colour, like the runoff from a basin in which new jeans have been washed.

I followed the canal to the Mandeville Aquatic Centre, which is where the Observatory Spruit joins the Jukskei and where, a little further along, the canal ends and the river proper begins.

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I’d found the walk strangely beautiful until this point. The canal’s century-old stonework is impressive and some of the fruit trees overhanging it from the flanking gardens are, I suspect, the descendants of the first settlers’ fruit gardens. Flocks of sacred ibis contributed to a sense of natural order, but as soon as the canal ended so did this illusion, because half the detritus of the city centre is to be found here.

The river goes through a series of crossbow bends as it approaches Bruma Lake, resulting in pools which I studied for the crabs and barbel I used to catch in the klein Jukskei when I was a child. Nothing stirred.

Biological desert
I’d been hurrying to make a meeting with Paul Fairall, a former commercial farmer turned campaigner for the protection of the African bullfrog, who also happens to be chairperson of the Jukskei River Catchment Forum.

His relationship with the Jukskei is what many would term quixotic – idealistic without regard to reality. He’d like to see the river rehabilitated to the extent that it becomes possible to re-introduce the white freshwater mussels that died out of this particular system in 19-voetsek. I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud.

“You doubt, but then 10 years ago very few people in London and Melbourne would have believed you if you told them that salmon and the platypus would respectively return to the Thames and the Yarra rivers,” countered Fairall.

However, he conceded that the Jukskei above Bruma Lake is a biological desert, and went on to explain why. “As people have become more affluent in this valley they have paved their driveways and their walkways. City planners call the cumulative effect ‘densification’, and the impact this has on storm water run-off is remarkable. As things stand, the Jukskei comes down in spate about 34 times a year. No biodiversity survives such scouring,” he said.

I asked Paul about Alexandra Township, which is widely believed to be the major source of the pollution in the Jukskei. But he was having none of it. The Jukskei’s E. coli count is far higher right here, in Bruma Lake, than at the point where it exits Alex, several kilometres downstream.

Tons of sludge
Alex isn’t the major source of pollution in the Jukskei, the centre of Johannesburg is, said Fairall. Most problematic are the 281 hijacked buildings in and around the city centre. The water and electricity supply to these buildings has been terminated, and so bucket flushed toilets are either plumbed into the building basements, which can be up to three levels deep, or down the sides of the building and into the storm water system.

“Ultimately the sewerage ends up in the same place. When it rains the basements flood, displacing the sewerage accumulated there, which flows into the streets and down into the stormwater system, which, on the northern slopes of city’s main ridge, feeds into the Jukskei,” explained Fairall.

To my eyes the body of water a few metres away looked pleasant. Rimmed with hyacinth and other aquatic plants, it was clearly a hit with water fowl, moorhens and the like. I said as much to Fairall.

“The lake is 2m deep,” he replied, nodding his head to indicate the significance of this fact.

Not likely, I thought, observing sacred ibis wading in the middle.

Then the penny dropped. The lake was supposed to be 2m deep, but something had filled in a good 1,9m of this depth.

“Sludge,” said Fairall, “tons of the stuff, courtesy of Hillbrow, Doornfontein and Yeoville. I had the water tested by the University of Pretoria, and they found it has an average of 50 worm eggs per litre.”

Bruma Lake was, ironically enough, the site of one of the city’s first sewerage works. This was decommissioned in the late 1970s, and by the early 1980s Anglo American Properties had started erecting buildings and selling plots around a newly created ‘lake’.

Before the development of that other great artificial Riviera, the Randburg Waterfront, Bruma Lake was the destination of choice for middle-class under-age drinkers. But just as quickly as it had boomed Bruma became something of a dirty word, and part of the reason for its decline (together with the fact that bodies and decapitated heads kept turning up in the rushes) was the pollution.

Disastrous consequences
In attempt to shut activists like Fairall up, millions were spent on three devices called SolarBees, which permanently stir the water so as to aerate it. They do this job well, but with disastrous unlooked for consequences.

“It has to do with phosphates,” explains Paul. “Commercial farmers fertilise their crops with increasingly high loads of nitrates and phosphates because all across the country soil quality is worsening. We city dwellers take these phosphates in with our food, and then we expel them again in our urine. Our households also expel phosphates in the form of suds from phosphate-rich detergents.

“Between our urine and our grey water our sewerage is very rich in phosphates. Why is this problematic? Anyone who knows anything about water knows that too much phosphate causes a body of water to become eutrophic, overgrown with plant matter, resulting in the withdrawal of oxygen from the system and the death of fish. In extreme cases the water can become poisonous to humans.”

For 33 years Bruma Lake has acted as a sink for sewerage-borne phosphates. Then the SoalarBees started stirring up the sludge, releasing the phosphates into the dim flow of the Jukskei, which joins the Crocodile River beyond Joburg’s northern limits, and a little further on spills into the Hartebeespoort Dam.

The effect, in Fairall’s view, is significant. “In recent years the Hartebeespoort Dam Remediation Program has recorded a spike in phosphate levels so extreme that some experts have suggested there’s a problem with the data-capture. I believe the spike could simply be owing to an exponential increase in sewerage spills in the city centre, and the fact that decades worth of phosphate deposits in Bruma Lake are now being unlocked and washed down stream,” he said.

Given the scale and the extremely complex nature of the Jukskei’s pollution problem in the face of Joburg’s weak to non-existent environmental management capacity, one is tempted to write off the river for all time. But if Fairall, knowing what he knows, still believes in the future return of the freshwater mussel, do the rest of us have a right to despair?