Durban - The eThekwini sewerage system is at crisis point, says DA Exco member Heinz de Boer as a number of recent sewage spills have contaminated rivers and dams to the north and south of the city.
A malfunctioning pump at a sewage substation in the RDP settlement of Waterloo on Monday caused a large volume of raw sewage to flow into the uMhlanga River, spreading to the lagoon, where the E. coli count was in “the hundreds of thousands” with outraged uMhlanga residents questioning why they have been subjected to the smell of raw sewage.
This follows a sewage spill at the upmarket Mount Edgecombe Estate several days ago, and warnings from independent water quality monitors that Midmar Dam is significantly contaminated by E. coli with fears the uMgeni River is heading for a crisis, affecting Albert Falls, Inanda and Nagle dams, which supply Durban’s drinking water.
There have also been several large sewage spills at eManzimtoti in the past few months, with residents complaining about pollution levels and raw sewage flowing into the aManzimtoti and Little aManzimtoti rivers.
De Boer, DA ward councillor for uMhlanga, was unequivocal about the current situation.
“eThekwini’s sewerage system is at crisis point, and unless a comprehensive audit is done by local government authorities, and a plan of action formulated to prevent spillage of sewage into rivers, we can expect to see more incidents like these,” he told the Sunday Tribune on Saturday.
“A spill like this should never have happened. The root cause of spillages like this needs to be urgently addressed by local government. We have seen far too many recent spills. Unless a comprehensive audit of our sewerage systems is done, to determine where the weaknesses lie, and repair them, this situation can only get worse.”
Chris Fennemore, manager: pollution & environment for eThekwini Municipality, said the E. coli count had risen “into the hundreds of thousands” as a result of the spill at Waterloo. He said that “pristine” water – considered safe for bathing – only had a count of several hundred parts of E. coli per volume of water.
“But no rivers are safe to swim in. Apart from the risk of E. coli contamination, animal faecal matter is also dangerous to human health, and there is a significant risk of bilharzia in many African rivers, including those in KZN,” he said.
Fennemore confirmed that the leak had resulted from a malfunction at a sewerage pumping station several kilometres upriver, in the RDP settlement of Waterloo.
“Once the effluent is in the river, it could stay there for some time. We are looking into the possibility of widening the river mouth to allow the contaminated water to be flushed out to sea, but this is problematic,” he explained.
“KZN Wildlife was formerly in charge of the dune system, and permission was usually granted for this sort of emergency measure, but now it reports under the National Department of Environmental Affairs: Coastal & Estuarine Management, and we have had no luck in getting permission to do this from their department.”
Brian Wright, project leader for the uMhlanga Urban Improvement Precinct (UIP), said the spillage was a cause of great concern for residents, and UIP members were monitoring the situation.
“At the moment the sewage is not on the uMhlanga beaches, but lifeguards are reporting back to us regularly, and if the situation changes then the beaches may have to be closed for public safety.”
Charlton Forsyth, a longstanding uMhlanga resident, said the contamination was “the worst I can ever remember”.
He complained that there had been no official warning to members of the public, and that he had seen people swimming in the lagoon all week.
“I have also spoken to a man who became violently ill after eating mussels pulled from the rocks near the lagoon. His doctor confirmed he had E. coli-induced poisoning,” he said.
“I have phoned every municipal department I can think of, but they just pass the buck,” he alleged. “Those in positions of power just don’t seem to get it. With levels of contamination this high, someone could die from ingesting the water.”
When the Sunday Tribune arrived at the uMhlanga lagoon on Saturday, the stench was still strong, and dead fish lay strewn around the perimeter of the lagoon.
“The smell has been here since last week. There are dead fish at the lagoon, whatever it is in the water is killing the fish. We have heard of people eating the fish and getting sick,” said angler Perumal Pillay.
Fellow angler Ricky Govender said that he was concerned about the hazard.
“There are people swimming in the lagoon, we need to stop them. Someone needs to warn these people. Some people are even picking up the dead fish and selling it. You could die if you eat that fish.”
Claudio Perreira, who regularly walks along the beach down to the lagoon with his dog, said the public had not been informed of any hazard.
“I come down here often and there’s been a pretty bad smell lately. I don’t really know what’s going on, no one has said anything. There have been some ‘No Swimming’ signs up but that’s about it.”
Tourists picnicking near the lagoon said that they had noticed dead fish in and around the water but were unaware of any spillage.
Some said the stench had lingered all week.
“I’ve been coming here a lot and I’ve smelt the bad smell,” said Israeli tourist Eden Cohen. “I won’t be swimming in the lagoon. I hope the beach is okay,” she said.