Municipal sewage row: province to step in

KUGAN Ragan points to where sewage had been seeping into his property for years in Woodview, Phoenix. | Khaya Ngwenya

KUGAN Ragan points to where sewage had been seeping into his property for years in Woodview, Phoenix. | Khaya Ngwenya

Published Feb 5, 2024


Durban — A Durban family has claimed that they have been forced to live in “inhumane” conditions for years due to the eThekwini Municipality’s failing infrastructure, which has resulted in sewage seeping into their property.

Despite numerous appeals to the municipality, Kugan Ragavan, the owner of the property in Woodview, Phoenix, said officials had only made superficial attempts but had not fixed the problem, even though they had been ordered by a court to do so.

Ragavan has now filed a contempt of court charge against the municipality – a matter that will be heard on Thursday.

The municipality refused to provide comment apart from saying this was a legal matter.

But, Ndabezinhle Sibiya, spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal’s Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Department, said: “We will definitely attend to the matter and comment accordingly once we have all the facts.”

Ragavan said his living conditions progressively affected his health and those of his two sons, and negatively impacted his catering business.

He expected relief after a successful high court application in January 2023, where the municipality was ordered to fix the problem.

Ragavan said the municipality initially complied with the order but remedial work was conducted in a “haphazard and unco-ordinated” manner and the seepage continued.

Advocate Kuben Samie, an environmental lawyer acting on behalf of Ragavan, filed an urgent contempt of court application against the municipality on Monday.

eThekwini city manager Musa Mbhele and Ednick Msweli, their head of water and sanitation, were listed as respondents as Ragavan sought to have the two senior office-bearers joined in the matter.

He wants the court to declare that Mbhele and Msweli “failed to comply fully” with the January 2023 order and must now adhere to the ruling and implement all the previously agreed upon remedial plans, failing which they must be declared as being in contempt of court and pay a fine of R20 000 each.

If they continued to act in breach of the order, Ragavan’s application asked that they be jailed for 30 days or a period that the court deemed appropriate.

The court documents stated it was essential that Mbhele and Msweli be joined because they played key roles to ensure that last year’s court order was complied with.

“Ragavan has a constitutional right to an environment that is not harmful to his health or well-being,” reads an extract from the court documents.

The frequent flooding of contaminated effluent, especially after periods of rainfall, was the basis for the urgency of the application.

The seepage initially surfaced in 2017 and impacted Ragavan’s and two other properties on his street.

However, Ragavan’s property, due to its positioning, bore the brunt of it.

Residents said the municipality had not maintained the infrastructure in their area for years, which possibly led to damage to the underground stormwater and sewerage systems.

KUGAN Ragan' near a sinkhole that had formed outside his Woodview, Phoenix home. | Khaya Ngwenya

This has resulted in the ingress of sewage into the stormwater system, which then surfaced on the properties of Ragavan and two other families, Mervyn Vythilingum and his wife Indira, and Kistensamy Reddy and his now late spouse Sivagamie, who are co-applicants in the founding court action.

It was eventually established that the contaminated water was surfacing from underneath a granny cottage at the rear of Ragavan’s property.

A section of the granny cottage was demolished, based on expert advice both Ragavan and the municipality received, for the entity to conduct repairs.

The municipality paid compensation to Ragavan for the losses he suffered to his property but failed to fix the problem.

When Samie began to represent Ragavan and the others and the initial court application was lodged in the latter stages of 2022, the municipality opposed the matter.

The municipality denied wrongdoing or transgressing the National Environmental Management Act.

It argued that the contamination stemmed from private sewerage connections and not municipal infrastructure.

The municipality claimed to have “effectively dealt with the pollution” in response to a directive issued by KwaZulu-Natal’s Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Department after Samie brought the residents’ plight to them.

The municipality said the seepage was due to a high water table in the vicinity of Ragavan’s property, and he was paid substantially in settlement of the resulting damages.

But before the matter went to trial, municipal officials conducted tests on soil and effluent samples from Ragavan’s premises and nearby stormwater manholes.

The test results showed unacceptably high levels of E coli and the municipality then entered into a settlement agreement with the applicants.

The court granted an order by consent on January 25, 2023, which compelled the municipality to produce an action plan, approved by the department, and provide monthly progress reports on how the situation was being remedied.

Some of the stipulations in the action plan included that the municipality inspect all sewer and stormwater infrastructure in the vicinity of Ragavan’s home.

They needed to engage with an hydrologist to determine the height of the groundwater table in and around Eiderwood Close and its influence on the resulting seepage.

After initially adhering to the requirements, Ragavan said, the municipality gradually went off the boil and failed to adhere to many of the action plan stipulations.

Municipal officials and their legal team were due to meet Samie on January 18 about the municipality’s alleged non-compliance with the court order.

They did not materialise as the officials were not present.

Samie received correspondence from the municipality’s legal team a week later indicating they received no further instruction from their clients.

Both Msweli and Mbhele did not respond to the Sunday Tribune’s questions.

Sunday Tribune