Drakensberg to Pietermaritzburg
The smell of sewage was almost overpowering as we tried to find clear footing in the quagmire of human waste around us. The doorway to someone's home lay just a few metres away.
We were making our way along one of five tributaries of Midmar Dam in KwaZulu-Natal, a hugely important water source that is fast becoming toxic.
But before we look at how we found ourselves in this smelly situation, let's rewind...
Yesterday, we had seen the high-tech and hugely expensive infrastructure that was put in place just in time to serve the needs of KZN's growing population, before travelling to the broken parts of the system, where people of Shiyabazali informal settlement are denied the basic right of fresh water, seemingly forgotten to live among their own waste.
On day three, we would meet some of the people who are coming together to become part of the solution among these broken systems.
Although Midmar Dam is clean enough to host the popular Midmar Mile each year in a specific section, it is suffering from an worsening pollution crisis. Everyone living downstream in Durban and Pietermaritzburg will bear the devastating consequences.
"If nothing is done to stop the rate of pollution coming into Midmar, it will degrade to the same status as the toxic Hartbeespoort Dam in the Northwest," said masters student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Sanele Ngubane, who has been studying what comes into the dam and what effect that has on its ecosystem.
“Midmar is fed by five streams and one river - the Umgeni. This dam is so important, as it supplies water to more than half the province.”
"Midmar is fed by five streams and one river - the Umgeni. This dam is so important, as it supplies water to more than half the province."
Midmar is threatened by sewage coming from the government-serviced Mphophomeni settlement, an area built with second-rate engineering and subjected to lackluster service delivery.
Pipes were installed at crooked angles, and since refuse collection is intermittent, residents often flush rubbish down their toilets.
We docked on the murky banks of Midmar, with Mphophomeni dotting the rolling foothills of the Drakensberg in the distance. As we made our way along the dusty road towards the township, we met up with Liz Taylor of the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), whom we had met the day before.
Through their efforts in cleaning up water sources feeding Midmar, Taylor and the rest of the DUCT team, consisting of residents in the area, are slowing down the problem. Without their help, we might have already passed the point of no return in Midmar.
As we had seen, a lot of the issues from a community perspective are being resolved through their involvement to make a change, but success in turning matters around lies in the hands of local government.
Partnerships are now being formed between different stakeholders and NGOs to spearhead collaborative efforts to address these problems.
Standing under a surprisingly sweltering midday sun on the outskirts of Mphophomeni, Ian Felton of the provincial department of environmental affairs held up a jar of river water, collected from the nearby Midmar tributary.
"There's a great prize for whoever drinks this," he proclaimed. "It's a two-week, all expenses paid stay at the hospital of your choice."
But joking aside, Felton said they have set themselves a target that in a few years time, people living here might be able to drink from or enjoy this water source.
“We've got a plan that focuses on all of the issues that you've already seen...”
"We've got a plan that focuses on all of the issues that you've already seen, and we've looked at the different action items. Now it's about making sure those plans come into effect."
These include issues of failing infrastructure, as well as educating residents in best practice and how to manage their waste, in partnership with DUCT and other stakeholders.
Is there hope? Further upstream, away from the festering burst sewage pipes, we saw how these tributaries have a chance to heal. The rejuvenated section of Mthinzima stream in Mphophomeni now holds life forms like stonefly larvae, a sensitive aquatic creature that dies when exposed to the slightest amount of pollution.
It was fitting to see that properly built pit latrines had been constructed nearby, proving that good social infrastructure equates to a healthy river system.
"I'm really starting to see how water relates to everything," said CEO of Business and Arts South Africa, Michelle Constant. "The more we start to understand, we see that water is politics, is culture, is society."
And just because these water systems may not link to our lives in a direct, immediately apparent way, this does not make it any less our problem. We need a critical shift in the way we approach water conservation.