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Pietermaritzburg's municipal authorities and the department of water affairs and forestry (DWAF) are not coming clean on the city's sewer system failures that have resulted in vast amounts of raw sewage spilling into the Msunduzi River.
This is revealed in documents leaked to the Sunday Tribune, including results of water quality monitoring by Umgeni Water and associated correspondence in the wake of the Hansa Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon.
Serious health risks from sewage spills are also being downplayed, with possible dire consequences for many people.
Disastrous sewage spills are occurring in rivers countrywide but if DWAF's response to the Msunduzi's pollution is anything to go by, little is being done to bring guilty parties to book.
While Pietermaritzburg's Municipal Manager, Rob Haswell, this week acknowledged there were problems to be addressed, a top water affairs official, KwaZulu-Natal's deputy director (water quality) Lin Gravelet-Blondin, described the pollution levels at the start of the Dusi canoe marathon as "not too bad".
"It was higher than usual - but I've seen worse," said Gravelet-Blondin.
Water quality monitoring by Umgeni Water on the first day of the marathon revealed serious health threatening levels of e.Coli in the Msunduzi River - in one case more than 1 800 times the internationally accepted safe limit for swimming (130 e.Coli counts per 100ml of river water).
This reading of 241 900 e.Coli/100ml was from a sample taken from the Msunduzi River at Doornhoek, the end of the Campbell portage where canoeists put their boats back into the river, which is about 15km downstream from the Darvill sewer works.
This high reading was attributed to a suspected contaminated plug of water - probably an overflow of raw sewage from Darvill.
A survey has revealed that nearly half the field of 2 000 paddlers fell ill with "Dusi guts". At least 14 were taken to hospital with chronic diarrhoea.
This week Brian Ive and his daughter, Christine, 16, were still vomiting - almost a fortnight after taking part in the Dusi.
"This is very unusual. I have done 27 Dusis and have had Dusi guts many times but never so late or for so long," said Ive.
The Msunduzi River has historically had a high faecal content due to informal settlements being situated in catchment areas. This problem stems from poor planning during apartheid and is often cited as the reason for high pollution levels.
This was the case with Gravelet-Blondin this week, "With high rainfalls, there was infiltration of sewage from contaminated catchment areas. We had no control over the rainfall. We knew all along that if we had rain, we would have problems."
But the information provided to the Sunday Tribune shows that recent alarming levels of faecal pollution in the Msunduzi River were more likely due to the failure of the municipality to maintain the city's sewer systems.
Gravelet-Blondin conceded there had been a sewer pump station failure in Pietermaritzburg on the eve of the Hansa Powerade Dusi Canoe Marathon, but said this was due to Eskom's "load shedding".
It now appears that Gravelet-Blondin might have been deliberately misinformed. A detailed internal municipal report on this pump station failure makes no mention of power cuts.
It does, however, state that the Msunduzi Municipality could face criminal prosecution arising from such incidents, especially if it were found that authorities failed to "ensure that no person or any entity pollutes any water course within its area of jurisdiction".
It describes how the Lincoln Meade pump station broke down on the night of January 16, resulting in "raw sewage spilling straight into the Grimthorpe tributary which ultimately enters the Msunduzi River".
"Yes, I do remember this being reported," responded Gravelet-Blondin. "But I was definitely told that the problem was because of load shedding. I must still look into this."
He said irrespective of the cause of the pump station failure, the resulting spill had not contributed significantly to river pollution.
Other documents given to the Sunday Tribune include an e-mail from Umgeni Water scientist, Steve Terry, officially notifying DWAF and city officials that water quality monitoring in and around Pietermaritzburg in late December had revealed the highest levels of faecal pollution ever recorded.
"Oh dear. I am very sorry to report a record - all the PMB area river data are in excess of 10 000 e.Coli/100 ml . . . The resulting attached map is thus, except for Darvill effluent, all red," said Terry, referring to the highest health risk classification used by Umgeni Water.
Terry said it was "very doubtful" that the run-off from contaminated catchment areas had caused such levels of faecal pollution. He warned that the problem appeared to be sewer problems.
This and other associated correspondence reveals that authorities and organisers of the canoe marathon were aware of this precarious situation.
With large numbers of paddlers having fallen ill, a row has now erupted between race organisers and authorities over the health issue, with organisers accusing authorities of not only covering up the extent of the pollution, but also the main cause of the pollution.
Haswell has called on parties to stop "passing the buck" and work constructively together to formulate a plan to deal with "some very real issues".
"This is the time to recognise that there is a serious problem, not just because there is a canoe race, but on a year-round basis. Given statements being made, one would think we don't give a damn, but we have made an unequivocal commitment to address the situation," said Haswell.