E. coli in eThekwini: What is it and where does it come from before ending up on our beaches?

The Umgeni River has turned greenish-murky due to the sewage spill that has contaminated the water, and left a bad smell in the air in areas alongside its banks. File Picture: Tumi Pakkies / Independent Newspapers

The Umgeni River has turned greenish-murky due to the sewage spill that has contaminated the water, and left a bad smell in the air in areas alongside its banks. File Picture: Tumi Pakkies / Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 18, 2023


Since the advent of the 2022 floods that swept through KwaZulu-Natal, the term E. coli has been more commonly used in tandem with the Durban beachfront and other beaches along the coast in the metropolitan area.

Now, for the second year in a row, the festive season in Durban doesn’t feel all that warm because many of the beaches in the city remain unsafe for use.

This all revolves around a bacteria called E. coli, which thrives in poo-infested waters.

This week, IOL spoke to a freshwater ecologist.

The Durban resident spoke to IOL with one intention: to get the correct information about E. coli out to the public so they can make more informed decisions.

According to him, the level of information being disseminated by the eThekwini Municipality about the E. coli situation is of very little use, in terms of public health.

As someone who works in the field, the source spends a lot of time assessing the biodiversity of an ecosystem in and around rivers.

This means assessing the slopes of the river bank, the contents of the riverbed, be it soil or rocks, and then also assessing the life in the river.

He has spent time working in the Umgeni River, Umhlatuzana River, uMhlanga River, Umdloti River, Tongaat River, and many others in the province.

The tests he has conducted on rivers since entering the field have been primarily through two methods: using multimeter probes or sending them to an accredited organisation, like Talbot.

What is E. coli?

“Quite simply, E. coli is a form of bacteria that feeds on faecal matter. It thrives in poop. So for there to be a high amount of E. coli in a water source, there needs to be enough faecal matter for it to feed off.

“We use E. coli as an indicator to measure and test water quality; it is only scientifically efficient when we are testing fresh water sources. There are other indicators to test salt water sources,” the expert said.

Rivers may be the source

Last week, IOL published an article after reviewing the City’s Water and Sanitation Department’s reports on the state of rivers during 2023.

These reports showed damning evidence that rivers in the metro have consistently recorded higher levels of E. coli, first from the east then pushing further west by October, which was the last report provided.

Last week, when the City published results about high levels of E. coli along Durban beaches, it said the heavy rains caused this.

It did mention that these rivers were the sources of E. coli and a flowing infection factory that poses a severe health risk.

“It is common to have poor water quality when heavy rains continue to batter the city. This results in pollution, including foreign objects washing from rivers and streams, as well as other water sources, into the ocean,” the municipality said after recording high levels of E. coli along Durban beaches.

IOL last week posed questions to the City about the state of rivers and is awaiting their response to the reports of E. coli in eThekwini rivers.

Another important factor to consider when talking about E. coli along Durban beaches are the wind and currents, which directly affect the direction water flows.

Since the term E. coli has popped up more frequently, there is a situation where most of the attention is being directed to the Durban beaches, when in fact, the beaches are the last stop for E. coli, not the source of it.

The source, who has also seen the reports showing the decaying state of rivers in eThekwini, said the problem was so much bigger than the beach.

“This is an entire collapse of our water and sanitation systems. It's not just one government department.

“We are experiencing an entire sewerage network failure, but the city is on an all-out defensive campaign to cover their asses. It's frightening what's happening.

“I think this collapse has come due to a certain number of things, namely, the lack of maintenance and proper management of our waste water treatment facilities, sewage pump station failure, blocked sewage pipes and solid waste disposal, and an overall competence to manage the situation,” he said.

After the floods in 2022, several pump stations in eThekwini were severely damaged, and thus, raw sewage, including human faeces, was dumped directly into rivers, which then made its way into the ocean.

What intensifies the situation is the fact that waste water treatment facilities are built near rivers because it is easier to work with gravity than against it.

For example, a waste water treatment facility needs to be at the bottom of a hill to avoid pumping sewage uphill. This means most facilities are located near a river.

“This happened at the Northern waste water treatment plant. I believe this processes a large amount of eThekwini’s sewage. This place was out of commission for months after the floods, which meant that the raw sewage was being diverted into the river without processing it.

“Normally, a treatment plant processes the sewage, meaning they break it down, make it less harmful, and push that into a river. It's called treated effluent. But after the flood, the facilities were unable to treat the effluent, so they dumped raw sewage into the rivers.

“That is why, when you look at the map of rivers in eThekwini, they are all in the red zone because the facilities that treat our sewage are not working 100 percent,” the expert said.

“The Umgeni River has been polluted with raw sewage for a long time now.”

Adopt-a-River founder Janet Simpkins agreed with the source on his sentiments about the waste water treatment works (WWTW) and its role in the E. coli problem.

Simpkins emphasised that this could also be part of a much greater health risk.

“It is important to note that ecoli is an indicator of sewage contamination and that there may well be many other pathogens present. Which is incredibly concerning.

“[The] Biggest contributing factor of sewage contamination is the non compliant and malfunctioning WWTW as poor state of our sewerage infrastructure,” Simpkins said.

Adopt-a-River, together with the City, currently test for E. coli levels at 6 beach sites and three sites along the uMngeni river.

“We are working together with our communities and organisations and can state based on sampling results that Ohlanga, uMdloti and Umbilo rivers also show significant sewage contamination.”

In February, WaterCAN’s KwaZulu-Natal representative, Jonathan Erasmus, said that if we take into account the role of rivers in the E. coli problem it is “an extremely worrying picture indicating that the city’s residents will be facing this problem for months, if not years, to come.”

We’re all to blame

This problem that the City is facing, although requires much intervention from the Municipality, is not their sole responsibility, as civil society and the private sector also contribute a large portion to it, the source explained.

Businesses that dump their waste into storm water and normal drains, unfit to deal with effluent, also add to the problem.

Residential areas where shady contractors build houses and divert the sewage into the storm water drains are also add heaps of poo to the problem.

“Many rivers that run through (informal) residential areas are all infested with bacteria, and people like to blame poor and indigent communities when the reality is that many of these communities use pit latrines, and pit latrines are not connected to the sewage network.

“There are a lot of private businesses that do not share a regard for how they get rid of sewage, and it adds to the problem,” the source explained.

Where does this leave us?

Until our sewage network is working at 100% and our rivers are cleaned up, we can expect constant high levels of E. coli along Durban beaches, the source said.

“The information that's given to the public needs to be more specific; it needs to help them make informed decisions and not just hope for the best.

“I think if more people get on board and start to play a role, we can form some sort of information system to keep people updated and let them know when it's safe or not.

"Obviously, the beaches are just one part, but there is already a system in place; it's called ‘Woz Olwandle’. It is a website created by Dr Justin Pringle that shows you when the beaches are safe for use or not,” he concluded.

On Monday, the municipality announced that it would be hosting an event with Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu to discuss the issues surrounding the sector.