Metro losing R21m a year to ‘sewer miners’

Vandalised pipes drain 70% of municipal sanitation maintenance annual budget

Sewage treatment plant. File picture
Sewage treatment plant. File picture
Image: Fredlin Adriaan

The strange practice of “sewer mining” is robbing the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality of more than R21-million a year, as the vandalised pipes drain 70% of the municipal sanitation maintenance annual budget.

The potentially deadly offence involves the sophisticated, painstaking search for valuables flushed down the toilet by mistake.

According to the municipality, the lion’s share of the sanitation maintenance budget is spent on fixing the extensive damage caused after sewers are mined.

The rampant vandalism of the metro’s already ageing sanitation infrastructure has officials scurrying to come up with innovative ways to protect the sewers.

It is a daunting task as the sewer lines stretch across 3 900km, making it difficult to protect them all, infrastructure and engineering director Amsha Muthayan said during an oversight visit to one of the hardest-hit areas yesterday.

There are also 86 sewage pump stations and seven wastewater treatment works across the metro – all of which are sitting ducks for those looking for rings, and even kitchen utensils, to sell.

Mayoral committee member Masixole Zinto said sewer mining was a worrying trend.

“It’s happening, that’s why we experience so many [sewer] blockages,” he said at a site in Algoa Park where vandals had opened several manholes.

“These guys want to mine the sewers when there is no pressure from the sewer on the pipeline. So they block it [because] if there’s no blockage the pressure will be very high, making it impossible to mine.”

The practice could have deadly consequences, Bay water and sanitation director Barry Martin said.

“In sewage, gas is generated because of the decay of sewage while its being conveyed,” he said.

“The gas in the sewer is two-fold – it’s flammable, but also hydrogen sulphide gas, which basically knocks you out cold.

“You can die while in the sewer.” Mayoral committee member for safety and security John Best said: “I’m definitely going to bring my team [here] to show them what has happened [in terms of the] vandalism.

“The metro police are patrolling the area but are, at this stage, focusing mainly on the gangsterism issues.

“The other issue we have is that when these drains are blocked and flow over in the communities, we then have service delivery protests in those communities – and we don’t want that.

“We want to deliver proper services to our communities.”

Zinto bemoaned the money lost due to vandalism.

“That money [R21-million] can be used elsewhere,” he said.

“It could also be used to create more job opportunities because we are in a dire situation when it comes to our unemployment rate.

“We have to take the message to our communities that what is happening here is serious. I mean, at what cost do they [the vandals] do this sewer mining, especially when you look at the cost to fix the sewers when they are done – because they will only get a spoon or a ring,” Zinto said.

The municipality has put several security measures in place to try to protect the sewers, including installing lockable manhole covers which require special keys to open.

“We are sitting with a big challenge,” an exasperated Muthayan said. “What I’m trying to emphasise is that the things that are coming out of the sewers should not be there in the first place.

“They include stones, rags, tyres, car parts, trolley pieces, motor engines, you name it.

“Because we have 3 900km of sewers, these vandals go in at any point and at any time, so we cannot predict when and how that will be.

“All we can do is try, with lockable covers and concrete blocks, to stop that from occurring.”