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Mpophomeni’s Enviro Champs tackle sewage, rubbish problems

Enviro Champs
Enviro Champs who are working with Umgeni Water, Umgungundlovu District, DUCT and Wildlands to tackle sewage and other environmental problems in the area. Community activist and entrepreneur Pha Mabaso is on the right. Pictures: Garth Johnstone

Township has serious environmental challenges

By Garth Johnstone

Mpophomeni township near Howick in the KZN Midlands is facing a triple threat of serious environmental challenges: sewage that is flowing into the Mthinzima Stream (a tributary of the Umgeni River),  a high number of water leaks and illegal dumping at various sites in the township.

Possibly the most alarming of these are three serious sewage leaks, with sewage flowing into the Mthinzima Stream, water from which ultimately threads its way into Midmar Dam. Although some of the sewage is filtered by wetlands, it still enters the dam and eutrophication is taking place.

The sewage and rubbish polluting the river caught the eye of community activist Pha Mabaso recently. He posted pictures and video of the pollution on Facebook. Mabaso expressed his disappointment at the neglect and “damage that humans cause to nature”.

The problem is caused by ageing infrastructure and pipe bursts. As the population has increased in recent years, and thus the volume of sewage, the old pipes are unable to cope. Community members believe that a lack of maintenance and failure to replace infrastructure is the cause of the problem.

Ageing sewage pipe infrastructure leads to pipe bursts; litter and illegal dumping add to the problem. Pictures by Garth Johnstone

But there is hope, as an upgrade of the Mpophomeni Waste Water Treatment Works is on the cards and community members have been informed that some of the old sewage pipes will also be replaced. They were told at a recent meeting that the water treatment works project would begin by the end of November and take about 18 months to complete.

According to the Umgeni Water Infrastructure Master Plan 2018, waste water from Mpophomeni has been pumped from the site of the decommissioned Mpophomeni waste water treatment facility to Howick’s treatment plant for treatment, a distance of about 11km.

Re-commissioned treatment plant

The existing pumping and conveyance system is inadequate to pump the projected ADWF (average dry weather flow) of 5.9Mℓ/day. Plans are therefore in place for the Mpophomeni facility to be re-commissioned as a treatment facility by Umgeni Water, with the upgrade designed to treat 6Mℓ/day, with the possibility of increasing capacity to 12Mℓ/day, says the Umgeni report.

A team of dedicated young environmentalists, all Mpophomeni residents, have been taking on the environmental challenges the township faces. These Enviro Champs receive mentorship from the Dusi Umngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), with funding from Umgeni Water and Wildlands. They receive a small stipend. The programme began in 2011.

Mpophomeni Enviro Champs Thandiwe Mhlongo and Nkululeko Ngcobo point towards a manhole where sewage is spilling over and ends up in Mthinzima stream.

The Enviro Champs go door-to-door, educating locals about environmental issues, the importance of recycling, water conservation and the need to reduce litter and dumping. These dedicated volunteers conduct clean-ups, visit schools to speak to children about environmental issues and have assisted in fixing water leaks. They have educated through drama, street theatre and training days, and assist with water testing.

The report, “UMDM EPWP Save Midmar Project within the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership” (under Umgungundlovu District and DUCT), notes that the Enviro Champs have conducted more than 7000 house visits as part of the door-to-door education programme. Follow-up visits have been done at more than 1000 homes.

War on Leaks

It confirmed that the “War on Leaks” programme saved more than 10 million litres of fresh water in the six months between October 2017 and March 2018.

Umgungundlovu municipality spokesperson Brian Zuma confirmed that the municipality “has plans to improve the sewer system in Mpophomeni”. He said: “The first project though will be the building of a new Waste Water Treatment Works. Coincidentally, that tender was awarded today (Monday, November 18). It will take 24 months to complete.”

Ward 10 councillor Sandile Khumalo confirmed that the waste water plant project was happening soon. He said he could not confirm that the date was the end of November, but definitely by January. He said sewage pipes were due to be replaced.

There are many challenges, but the Enviro Champs are helping to fight the good fight.

Khumalo said the work by the Enviro Champs was helping the community greatly and he appreciated their efforts.

When asked about illegal dumping, Khumalo said: “The problem is that Mpophomeni doesn’t have a dump site and the nearest is in Howick. Builders and others dump waste in Mpophomeni to avoid the cost of travelling to Howick.”

Mpophomeni is connected… Mnandi!

He said on some days, the municipality sent trucks to pick up black bags, but some residents were neglectful and did not put out their black bags. Skips placed in the township would be a big help, he said. “That would help avoid a lot of this rubbish you see lying around.”

One important aspect of the visits to homes by the Enviro Champs is the opportunity to teach residents about what should not be thrown into toilets (plastic, newspaper, sanitary pads, food, mud from shoes, rags, knives and forks etc).


Scores of sewer manholes are being monitored so that blockages can be reported. The trend, according to the “Save Midmar Project” report, was that between 2012 and 2015 the number of spilling manholes soared as the Enviro Champs numbers rose and reporting increased. Following increased awareness, reporting and fixing of problems, this then declined significantly up to end of 2017. However, the problem persists, and remains a significant environmental hazard.

Liz Taylor, a board member of DUCT, said without the efforts of the Enviro Champs and similar organisations to stem the flow of sewage and rubbish into our rivers’ water, “events like the Midmar Mile would be under threat”.

Eutrophication in Midmar Dam due to sewage inflow. Picture from the report, “UMDM EPWP Save Midmar Project within the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership”.

The Enviro Champs told The Meander Chronicle their biggest concern is the leaking sewage. Second on their list of concerns is the water leaks that are costing the municipality tens of thousands of rands a month.

Their mentor is Mlondi Cele, aka Baba Cele, who points out that previously, Umgungundlovu municipality used to provide funding to fix leaks in private homes. “We saved them millions of litres of water in a six-month period,” he says, adding that they have a good relationship with local councillors, but trying to escalate the problems to a higher level within the municipality has proved problematic.

Mlondi ‘Baba’ Cele at the scene of a leak, pointing in the direction of Midmar Dam.

The “Save Midmar Project” report notes that leaks and water wastage could be significantly reduced if the community was provided with tools and resources to fix the problems themselves: “We can say that it would be a great help if there were some community plumbing teams with a tool box each. Even if there were just some inexpensive materials like washers, taps, plumbers tape, so that the smaller leaks in the houses can be fixed.”

Positive step

All of those we spoke to agreed, however, that the move to fix the ageing sewage pipe infrastructure is a positive step that is welcomed by the community.

The most visible challenge when you enter the township is the mass of rubbish caused by litter and illegal dumping of rubble, building materials and discarded junk.

Evidence of the neglect which is troubling community activist Pha Mabaso and others who are passionate about their home town Mpophomeni.

Sadly, looking across the township’s fields and what are beautiful wetland areas frequented by an impressive variety of birds, one sees plastic, glass bottles, chip packets, even discarded nappies. There is a conspicuous absence of rubbish bins and Cele says the council will not place skips at strategic points, arguing that residents are dumping unacceptable items in the skips.

The Enviro Champs and residents concede that residents themselves and some of the businesses in the township are culpable, because they are making no effort to keep “their patch” clean.

But there are also instances where residents are not receiving sufficient support from council: people complain they are not getting black refuse bags from the municipality; sometimes rubbish trucks don’t arrive and there is no dump site.

On the back foot

While there is a growing spirit of entrepreneurship in the township and plans to boost tourism to the area, until the serious environmental challenges and litter eyesores are sorted out, Mpophomeni seems destined to remain at a distinct disadvantage when compared with some of its Midlands neighbours. There is much to be done, but there is hope while members of the community are willing to fight the good fight.

*The Enviro Champs and Save Midmar project have received support over the years from organisations such as WESSA; Mpophomeni Conservation Club; Mpophomeni Youth Productions; Water Explorers; Owl Box Project, and Midlands Meander Education Forum. Funding partners have included Wildlands; Umgeni Water; WWF; Nedbank Green Trust; N3TC (Toll Concession), and Rotary. Participating universities: UKZN; UCT; Jonkoping (Sweden).

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