South Africa

Vaal River update: Authorisation for Rand Water’s herbicide spraying spree ‘unlawful’

On Tuesday, Rand Water embarked on its mission to rid the Vaal River from its infestation of water lettuce and hyacinth by spraying the herbicide glyphosate.

The move was met with widespread outcry over the potential environmental and health risks posed by the initiative.

At the time, Dr Simone Dahms-Verster, lecturer at Wits University School of Geography, expressed her surprise at the water utility’s assurance that it was acting in accordance with “general authorisation” from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

“Spraying glyphosate directly into a freshwater ecosystem is a terrible idea. The effects of glyphosate and its metabolites can cause reactive oxygen species and gene mutations in various aquatic species,” the lecturer said.

ALSO READ: Polluting disaster? Rand Water embarks on herbicide spraying spree over Vaal River [Watch]

Rand Water: Herbicide spraying over Vaal River ‘unlawful’

rand water vaal river water hyacinth 1
The Vaal River has been battling an infestation of water lettuce and hyacinth over recent years. Photo via X/ @Rand_Water

In the latest update on the situation, Netwerk24 reported that National Water Act expert Carin Bosman slammed the “General Authorisation” which Rand Water claims it was granted by the DWS as “unlawful”.

According to Bosman, new regulations published in December in the Government Gazette pertaining to “general authorisation” and the National Water Act, declared the spraying of herbicides into water sources as unlawful.

“Hence it [the spraying of glyphosate] is a transgression of the National Water Act,” she said.

Sewage-loving weeds: Vital Vaal River polluted

The Integrated Vaal River System serves as essential water source of 19 million people in Gauteng, the Free State, Northern Cape and North West provinces through 14 dams, which are purified by Rand Water.

The City of Johannesburg – which has been battling bouts of major water outages for the past two years – relies solely on the Vaal River for its water.

The water source has been polluted by tonnes of sewage which has been allowed to flow into the river for years because of the wastewater treatment plants in Emfuleni, according to News24.

Non-profit organisation Save the Vaal reported last year that the collapse of the treatment plants resulted in a shocking 170 million litres of raw or partially treated wastewater entering the Vaal River daily.

WATCH: Shocking state of the Vaal River

The mere presence of the water lettuce and hyacinth in the water is an indicator of how polluted the river is as these invasive species feed off sewage and is found in polluted water.

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ALSO READ: Cholera updates: UN steps in, Vaal River tests positive

Hungry bio-agents at work

In addition to spraying the water weeds, vice-director of biocontrol at Rhodes University, Professor Julie Coetzee, released 1 600 weevils and hoppers into the Vaal barrage on Thursday as part of Rand Water’s initiative.

Vaal River ‘has been destroyed’ – DA

Carin Visser, Democratic Alliance (DA) member of the National Council of Provinces, has expressed her disbelief at the use of glyphosate to spray the fast-growing water weeds.

“It is shocking that the departments of water and sanitation and forestry, fisheries and the environment are not fulfilling their mandate to protect the environment and our water sources. The Vaal River has been destroyed and won’t be saved by the use of herbicide.”

ALSO READ: Vaal River polluted ‘beyond acceptable standards’, says SAHRC

What is glyphosate?

Leslie London, head of the Division of Public Health Medicine at the University of Cape Town, told GroundUp two years ago that the weed killer glyphosate – widely used in South Africa but banned in some European Union (EU) countries – can be bought in gardening stores that stock herbicides, such as RoundUp.

According to London, South Africa’s regulations on agricultural pesticides are “ancient”.

In the past, the Health and Environmental Alliance (Heal) has called in the past for a global ban on glyphosate, citing that exposure to glyphosate-based pesticides has been linked to certain types of cancer, as well as to adverse effects on human development and hormonal systems.

ALSO READ: Community removes 70 tonnes of water lettuce from Vaal River