Durban Bay and its harbour have been much in the news of late, with mixed reports ranging from the condition of the bay to the success or otherwise in implementing continuing port plans.

These plans are described as continuing because ever since the first harbour board was convened in the 1840s, planning of some sort has taken place in anticipation of the |future use of Durban Bay as a haven for ships bringing people and trade goods to the region. These plans continue to be drawn and redrawn regularly, often in five-year batches that are updated each year.

The plans can be seen in publications like the general manager’s annual reports for SAR&H, SATS and Transnet, from 1910 on.

For the next 80 or so years, these remained wonderfully useful and highly informative sources of details of the progress made and planned for all the country’s ports.

Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and the more recent reports are drab affairs that deal almost exclusively with financial matters.

In most years, these older |reports would carry maps showing the plans for various ports, allowing for a study of how the engineers fancied changing the outline of Durban Bay to suit the perceived needs of shipping. Had all of these plans been implemented, Durban Bay would have looked completely different and we’d be discussing a different set of arguments about whether this or that should happen. However, for reasons that were considered |important at the time, the bay took on its modern appearance – including, in the mid-1970s, the turning of Farewell Island and adjacent swamp areas into what became the biggest and busiest container terminal in the southern hemisphere.

With it, business in Durban soared as the city became a logistics centre without peer in Africa. Tens of thousands of jobs were created to support not only those living here, but a significant percentage of the people migrating to the city – just as was happening with other metro centres across the land.

All this was accomplished with little of the environmental pressure that is imposed on such development today.

Had it been so then, possibly Farewell Island and the swamps might still be there, along with a greater bird and marine life and the container terminal might have been developed in another part of the bay – perhaps the Bayhead. Or, for that matter, in another port!

While many still lament the passing of the pristine appearance of an estuarine system and bay on the doorstep of the emerging city, today we must accept that this was a price to pay for progress from which we all benefit. Although tidal flats and birdlife have suffered, the bay remains home to a surprising variety of marine and bird life, even if the flamingos of my youth have gone for good.

I also lament the seaplanes that used to land in Durban Bay, but have to accept that too.

When people talk about the bay becoming a cesspool or a slum port, it is disturbing, sad and unfortunate, because Durban Bay is far from being either.

Perhaps it would be better if everyone joined in finding a way of further developing the port, and ensuring that progress can continue without further unnecessary deprivation of the natural environment surrounding the bay.

We learnt recently that the city and port authorities were now talking to each other, which is a big step forward. How could they not have been, one must ask? Hopefully, this will include conversations about the development of areas surrounding the port, the so-called back-of-port areas so important to the efficient moving of cargo in and out of the port itself, which can’t be progressed without input from both.

So, too, must local communities be involved, and not simply in report-back meetings after the event.

Coincidentally, the back-of-port area covers much of that region that lies geographically between the |existing and the planned dig-out port, which is again an area of concern to affected communities. It’s a large area and answers can surely be found to meet the requirements of everyone.

Clairwood, for instance, lends |itself admirably to embracing both requirements, where a section of the community can continue to live and work in a preserved area adjacent to South Coast Road. This could easily become something of a tourist attraction – a must-see casbah of the Asian community, taking in the historic Indian shops along that road.

The other half of Clairwood, on the Bluff side, bounded by the Bluff railway, could be developed in an |orderly manner for container parks.

This brings us to the highly emotional question of road access. Isn’t it time here for some lateral thinking? More than a million containers a year go into container parks across Durban for stuffing or unloading, for temporary storage or as empties. All of these are moved by truck along a few of Durban’s overburdened roads – mainly Bayhead Road, South Coast Road and Solomon Mahlangu Drive. Even with the promised link road, these roads will continue to suffer, as will the affected residents.

Instead, why not develop a canal system, possibly using a river like the Amanzimnyama Canal, which could be widened and deepened, leading to a common landing spot in the Clairwood area where trucks would collect and take the containers the short distance to container parks, avoiding the overstressed road system.

The container depots in the Bayhead area could be serviced from a similar landing spot along the way.

A canal accessing Durban Bay would develop opportunities for a new industry of small tugs and barges, operated by private enterprise, which would become a long-term solution to Durban’s chronic road congestion surrounding the port.

The only trucks then entering the port would be those employed on long-distance operations.

The expense of the canal need not be not much greater than widening and building new roads, although two bridges would have to be deepened.

The river mentioned follows the required path across Bayhead and Clairwood. At a much later stage, it could if necessary be used to join with the dig-out port.

Food for thought for enterprising planners and engineers?