Rivers of Sewage
Entry type: Single project
Country/area: United States
Publishing organisation: CCIJ, OpenUp, West Cape News, GroundUp
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-06-06
Authors: Yuxi Wang, Sotiris Sideris, Liana Bravo, Yaffa Fredrick, Lydia Namubiru, Scott Lewis, Melissa Mahtani, Jillian Dudziak, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein, Carl Jacobs, Christelle Kalanda, Sihle Makanya, JD Bothma, Lailah Ryklief, Yuxi Wang, Steve Kretzmann, Chris Gilili, Peter Luhanga, Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik
* **West Cape News** founder and editor Steve Kretzmann has won awards for his reporting on sustainability issues, as well as his arts reporting.
* **CCIJ** is a nonprofit media organization that convenes and leads global investigations grounded in strategic mentorship.
* **Open Up:** We build tools, open up data, and provide data training which supports an active citizenry and help communities and governments work better, together.
Data captured by South Africa’s national Water and Sanitation Department (DWS) show more than half of all municipal sewage treatment works fail to treat sewage to minimum standards before releasing it into rivers. Besides the ecological damage, this pollution flows into dams supplying drinking water to citizens. Further, data shows drinking water fails to meet minimum standards in two thirds of all municipalities responsible for potable water supply, and many fail to provide any water for days, sometimes weeks at a time. Through a series of stories, we exposed this systemic national failure and its devastating effects.
The project had a series of significant impacts.
Our reporting on sewage pollution in Cape Town, which laid the foundation for this nationwide investigation, contributed to Cape Town’s new mayor, who was elected on 1 November 2021, declaring sewage pollution a top priority during his campaign. He removed the previous political head of water and sanitation in the city, and spent his first day in office visiting particularly egregious sites of pollution. The city now makes the results of its inland and coastal water quality tests public.
The nationwide Green Drop Report, which is a national regulatory audit of the country’s wastewater treatment, was resumed in 2021 after being halted in 2016. We believe these stories, and others which led up to these, may have had some influence.
The project had widespread distribution, as many of the stories were republished by some of the most respected news outlets in Ghana, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, The Gambia, Mali, and the United States. It earned professional recognition, being named one of the best investigative projects in sub-Saharan Africa for 2022 by the [GIJN](https://gijn.org/2022/12/08/2022s-best-investigative-stories-from-sub-saharan-africa/).
Teamembers were invited to talk about the research at universities, conferences and debates. This included a successful application to speak at the continent-wide African Investigative Journalism Conference (AIJC) in Johannesburg, SA and the University of Lorraine in Metz, France, among others.
Finally, researchers, NGO’s, advocacy groups and other colleagues got inspired by our work and approached us for our methodology and data. Most notably, InfoNile, a non-profit cross-border group of data and geo journalists, contacted us to follow up on our investigation and methodology to cover the situation in the Nile River Basin.
* We used our [Wazimap NG](https://wazimap-ng.com/) platform to build an instance called [Water Wazi ZA](https://water-wazi-za.openup.org.za/), that showcases Effluent and Potable Water data.
* Up-to-date and historical data on sewage and potable water infrastructure was obtained from the Department of Water and Sanitation [Integrated Regulatory Information System](https://ws.dws.gov.za/IRIS/login.aspx) (IRIS). We used Google Colab and python for data scraping the IRIS dashboard.
* To look at financial causes of municipal failure, we used [municipalmoney.gov.za](https://municipalmoney.gov.za/), which displays audit data and the Auditor-General’s findings.
* [Wazimap](https://wazimap.co.za/), a tool built by OpenUp, was used for population and income data.
* Google Earth was used to identify where sewage works and water treatment plants were geographically situated.
* Adobe Illustrator, QGIS, Datawrapper and Antv library for data visualization
* [GDELT](https://www.gdeltproject.org/) for collecting water-related stories in South Africa and [OpenAI](https://openai.com/api/) for deciding which story is focused on water-related themes.
* To build our Metaverse space we used 3D fluidodynamic simulations (data droplets, seeping water), Modeling and 3D Mapping from the series’ locations, interactive rooms from data and stories’ selected excerpts. Software used: Blender, Spatial.io building engine, Adobe Photoshop, 3D-mapper, Google Maps, Sketchfab.
Context about the project:
Informed by water and sanitation data on the national Department of Water and Sanitation [Integrated Regulatory Information System](https://ws.dws.gov.za/IRIS/login.aspx), we identified municipalities of particular interest which failed to meet minimum sewage treatment and potable water supply standards. These municipalities, predominantly managed by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) or a political coalition headed by the ANC – with the exception of Cape Town – are essentially dysfunctional and would either fail to respond to queries, or have no channels of communication with the media. In order to determine the causes of water and sanitation failure and gain insight into the state of sewage and water treatment plants, we often had to go outside of official channels and speak to workers and supervisors at the respective plants. This required gaining their trust, where possible, and protecting them as sources as they would lose their jobs for speaking to the media.
We also had to contact community activists or local opposition politicians in order to gain a better understanding of local water and sanitation issues. In order to speak to residents hardest hit by water and sanitation failure, we had to knock on doors in the poorest areas which, in the context of South Africa’s high crime rate was often a dangerous undertaking given these areas are known to suffer from high levels of crime within a country with the [third-highest global crime ranking](https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/crime-rate-by-country).
Despite its importance, the need for hard data on water access and quality remains high to this day, even 13 years after the [United Nations declared](https://www.un.org/waterforlifedecade/human_right_to_water.shtml#:~:text=On%2028%20July%202010%2C%20through,realisation%20of%20all%20human%20rights.) access to water and sanitation a universal human right. The lack of localized data makes it difficult to pinpoint problems within specific communities. This project is part of our long-term commitment to build a repository of water-related articles, where civil society actors can actively source and share accurate water-related information. We do that by creating an open platform that regularly monitors South Africa’s online news media for water-related articles.
For Open Up, the project represented the latest development in its ongoing work on Water Wazi, a tool that seeks to integrate various levels of demographic and water data. This year’s feature included geo-locating a series of water-related articles. Together, our team mines the data to identify noteworthy communities, locations, events, organizations and themes, and maintains an open water data repository to provide the public with reporting resources.
We want to be clear that we see this as a first example of how to build similar resources for this and other topics in other countries. In addition, we used the project as an opportunity to continue to deepen our presence in the metaverse. We are one of few journalism organizations in the world that has a metaverse designer as a core team member. She worked closely with the rest of the team to develop that innovative technology, distribution, and conversation space. This included using Google Street Map to create a truly immersive space that closely resembled physical conditions on the ground.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Across South Africa, there are weekly reports of water and sanitation failure in local and regional publications, but these often lack contextual reporting, and are reactive. By making journalists aware of the availability of national water and sanitation data which is granulated down to every sewage treatment works and water purification plant in the country, journalists can contextualize these failures both historically and within a broader geography. Journalists can also monitor water and sanitation performance in their town, city, or region and proactively report on the dangers to human health and ecology. Further, links between failure in sewage treatment and drinking water standards can be observed and investigated.
The Water Data Repo is a project led by CCIJ in collaboration with OpenUp to address the data needs of journalists, activists, academics and technologists working on water-related projects in South Africa and beyond. We do that by creating an open platform that regularly monitors each South Africa’s online news media for water-related articles. Our team mines the data to identify noteworthy communities, locations, events, organizations and themes, and maintains an open water data repository to provide the public with reporting resources.
Our team of a monthly local newspaper, civic tech organization and international journalism non-profit has learned that, while collaboration can take additional time on the front end, it is more than rewarded with the higher quality, impact and reach of the work when it is completed and disseminated.