Concerns about water quality at Durban’s beaches

During a walkabout with her children on Durban’s promenade this earlier week councillor Welekazi Sibiya captured this image of effluent seeping from a damaged sewer line in the lifeguard’s building on the Bay of Plenty Beach, towards the ocean. Picture: Supplied

During a walkabout with her children on Durban’s promenade this earlier week councillor Welekazi Sibiya captured this image of effluent seeping from a damaged sewer line in the lifeguard’s building on the Bay of Plenty Beach, towards the ocean. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 24, 2023


WITH the next school holiday break days away and summer around the corner, concern was raised that Durban’s beaches might not be ideal for fun in the sun because of compromised water quality.

It is feared that some of the eThekwini Municipality’s popular beaches on the beachfront had recorded “critically” high E.coli bacteria counts when water samples were drawn and tested at an independent laboratory.

Talbot, a sustainable water and wastewater solutions company offering its services across the continent, has been testing water samples from Durban beaches weekly since February 2022.

Their E.coli count results released on social media platforms for September 14 revealed the following: Point Beach - 4 352 cfu (colony forming units)/100ml, uShaka Beach - 3 282, South Beach - 4 352, North Beach - 5 172, Battery Beach - 3 130 and Country Club Beach - 6 131.

Talbot’s testing, a week earlier (September 7), showed that only Battery Beach had a worrying reading (2 247/100 ml)

The condition is regarded critical when contamination is beyond 500/ml.

E.coli in water indicates contamination via animal waste or sewage, and consumption could result in severe illness.

The Durban summer holiday season was ruined last year as many beaches were shut, as was the case for much of the year, due to E.coli levels.

Extensive sewage seepage from damaged infrastructure brought about by the floods of April 2022 and vandalism resulted in the safety-first action taken by the city.

But the municipality is adamant, according to their own findings, all was well with Durban’s beaches.

The city’s latest “beach water quality results” for beaches in its central, northern and southern zones, which was posted on the municipality’s website, near the time of Talbot’s testing, indicated it was safe for use.

Gugu Sisilana, the municipality’s spokesperson, said Talbot had a standing invitation to sample together with them “so that we can compare apples with apples”.

She said they tested weekly.

“For reasons known only to them, they prefer not to use this option. As a lab, they know well that results can only be comparable if we test together.”

Sisilana said Talbot’s results were discussed at an exco meeting, earlier this week, where Dr Musa Gumede, the deputy city manager for community and emergency services, confirmed that their own tests were contrary to Talbot’s.

“We are not sure where they tested and the results are causing unnecessary alarm as there was no synchronisation of tests between the city and Talbot.”

She said they did E.coli tests weekly and only Reunion Beach was currently closed as a result.

On why other beaches were closed recently, the city acted on the Sharks Board’s advice because spring tides damaged shark nets.

“It was a precautionary measure. Sometimes opposition parties, when they see beaches closed, say ‘sewage crisis’ because it is good publicity for them. That doesn’t do any justice. It confuses people and chases away tourists and investors, and our economy suffers,” she said.

Micole Martens, of Talbot, said her company would work with the city if invited.

Martens said they last collaborated with the city near the end of last year.

“They approached us to do a split-sample and went to the same beach at the same time, same place and our results aligned with theirs.”

She confirmed they were doing tests weekly for 18 months, at their own cost, as a public awareness initiative.

Rico Euripidou, a campaigns co-ordinator with GroundWork, an environmental watchdog and development non-profit group working in Southern Africa, said: “Talbot is a respected institution that rarely makes mistakes in its analysis, so we should treat the information from them as accurate when available.”

Euripidou said when it rains in Durban, higher coliform counts (sanitary condition of water supply) affect beach water quality near river mouths because coliforms wash downriver into the sea.

“Among the most important advances in public health globally are safe sanitation and drinking water. This even predates antibiotics and modern medicine. Sanitation is paramount to safe public health,” said Euripidou.

According to a media report on Friday, the Durban University of Technology’s Professor Faizal Bux, the director of the Institute for Water and Wastewater Technology, said their tests done at six beaches this week showed E.coli levels that were not permissible.

Water samples drawn from Addington, Bay of Plenty, Virginia, uMhlanga, Laguna and Glenashley, showed dangerous bacteria levels.

Yogis Govender, a DA exco member, said given the E.coli results that have emerged, mayor Mxolisi Kaunda’s statement that 22 of Durban’s 23 beaches were safe was “misleading”.

Govender said unless the city does frequent testing a few times a day, for consecutive days, they believe that any statement cannot be scientifically correct.

“To culture a sample takes 24 to 48 hours, meaning a result is likely to be published on the third day or thereafter of a sample being taken. Testing weekly means absolutely nothing because the result is never in real time.

“This means beachgoers could be unawares swimming in high-level E.coli infested waters and walking in contaminated sand,” Govender said.