Durban - After more than 150 years of development and relentless degradation of Durban Bay, the government has outlined an ambitious five-year plan to clean up pollution and restore the ecological health of the country’s busiest harbour.
A new report by the national Department of Environmental Affairs says there are indications that parts of the harbour are now so polluted that eating fish from these waters could be risky for human health.
Overall, the ecological health of Durban Bay had declined to the “parlous” status of Category E. Given that much of this degradation was irreversible, the best short-term scenario would be to gradually improve its status slightly, to Category D.
The report says that although Durban Harbour is the busiest container port in the southern hemisphere, handling cargo valued at R50 billion each year, it is also one of the country’s largest nursery grounds for a wide variety of sea fish, prawns and other marine organisms.
However, nearly 80% of all river catchments leading into the bay are surrounded by human and industrial development, while a network of stormwater drains empties into this critical fish nursery.
It says the continuing decline in water quality and ecological health was graphically illustrated by the major fish kill in the summer of 2007/08 that left the harbour’s central sandbanks littered with nearly 25 tons of rotting carcasses.
In the short term, various government agencies have to act quickly to focus on “quick wins” that do not require further research.
As a starting point, the draft estuarine management plan calls for the formation of a new advisory body which would prepare immediate action plans to reduce pollution levels from rivers, stormwater drains and litter.
This would include “identifying the polluters” and either prosecuting or working with local industries to improve their housekeeping.
The Department of Fisheries and Transnet should commission a comprehensive State of the Bay report which would include collecting tissue samples from fish to measure the levels of toxic heavy metals and other poisons - along with an assessment of human health risks.
This study should be made public and repeated every five years.
The eThekwini Municipality should be responsible for identifying the pollution sources from industry, and start to improve policing levels with help from Transnet and the national Department of Environment Affairs.
The municipality should also improve rubbish collection schemes in residential areas.
There should also be much stricter control of wastewater, blocked manholes and dumping of litter into stormwater drains, with assistance from the Department of Water and Sanitation.
At a national level, Durban Bay was ranked among the top 10 estuaries in the country. Along with Richards Bay and Knysna, it was one of only three large open estuaries in the country.
“While the environment has become significantly degraded, it nevertheless remains an estuary of local, regional and even national significance.”
Apart from industrial expansion and human population growth, one of the historical reasons for continuing degradation was the lack of a single government department mandated to deal with the problem.
Over many years, Transnet had gained management rights for large sections of the harbour.
“There has not always been co-operation between the various role-players involved in the management of the bay.
“There is confusion between the various authorities on their respective roles and responsibilities.”
The report notes that there has also been a lack of trust and budget constraints - though “now there are signs of improvement”.
In the longer term, if the harbour is expanded into the Bayhead area, it might be possible to improve the bay’s ecological health further by increasing water flow and circulation in the more stagnant backwater areas.
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