Durban mother dead, scores sick with diarrhoea as polluted tap water confirmed
In response to questions from Our Burning Planet after the death of Rashnie Baijnath, the eThekwini Municipality confirmed that tap water in the Birchwood area, west of the city, ‘does not meet acceptable standards for human consumption’.
The grieving family and relatives of a Durban mother — who died after a severe bout of diarrhoea — have been left wondering whether she would still be alive if municipal officials had acted faster to warn the community and rectify the source of polluted tap water in Mariannhill.
Sick and dehydrated, Rashnie Baijnath (38) died on her way to hospital on 10 August, leaving behind her husband, Suraj, and two children — 18-month-old daughter Shriya and 17-year-old son Keenan
Scores of residents in the Mariannhill/Birchwood area of Durban are sick with diarrhoea, believed to be due to drinking tap water polluted in the aftermath of widespread water and sewerage infrastructure collapses in Durban during the April floods.
In response to written questions from Our Burning Planet after the death of Baijnath, the eThekwini Municipality confirmed on 19 August that tap water in the Birchwood area, west of the city, “does not meet acceptable standards for human consumption”. It also advised residents to boil water for at least a minute before drinking it or when using it for food preparation.
According to eThekwini Municipality spokesperson Lindiwe Khuzwayo, the only affected area is Birchwood, near Mariannhill — not the city as a whole.
Nevertheless, wastewater treatment works, pump stations and pipelines are still not working in several parts of the city, leaving a noticeable stench in the air around several low-lying areas, riverbanks and lagoons.
One such area is Riverside Road in Durban North, where large expanses of decomposing sewage effluent have spread out along the banks of the Umgeni River, about 2km from where it enters the sea and the city’s northern beaches. Recent independent testing of water in this area by the Adopt a River citizen group and Talbot Laboratories revealed alarming levels of sewage bacteria, including readings of more than 38 million E. coli CFU/100ml.
On August 9, hundreds of dead fish washed up in the Isipingo Lagoon after sewage pump station failures in the area.
The continued health risks of drinking tap water in the vicinity of Mariannhill came to light last week when a resident notified Our Burning Planet about the death of his neighbour and several other cases of sickness in the neighbourhood.
On 26 July, the city issued a public warning that water in Dassenhoek/Birchwood Park was “not of good quality” and advised affected residents to boil water for at least a minute before drinking it.
But two weeks later, city spokesperson Khuzwayo issued a second “all-clear” statement advising that water in Birchwood Park was once more safe for human consumption.
“Repairs to water infrastructure have been completed and specialists conducted follow-up tests to ascertain the quality of water. The results confirmed that the water is safe for consumption,” she said in a statement on August 8.
But it was too late for Baijnath. She was already seriously ill and en route to St Mary’s Hospital in Mariannhill on 10 August.
A medical certificate issued by the hospital described the immediate/final cause of her death as “diarrhoea”.
And now, more than a week after she died and the municipality’s initial all-clear statement, the city has again confirmed that the water in this area is not safe to drink.
Officials did not respond to our request to disclose the exact type and level of pollution detected during lab tests, simply stating that the city was “investigating sources of contamination and has so far identified and cleared some pipeline blockages, which has reduced the level of contamination”.
A mother in Greyville Road showed us an official notice from the Mariannpark Primary School, dated 16 August, confirming that eThekwini had advised the school to shut off the water supply pending further safety tests by the Water and Sanitation Department.
The notice, signed by acting principal T Dlamini and SGB chair MZ Mkhize, said pupils should not return to school until the water had been “tested and guaranteed as safe”.
The resident said tap water supply had been intermittent for weeks and often “really smelly”, adding that her mother and several neighbours had diarrhoea.
“My mum was taken to hospital and they wanted her stools for testing.”
Another mother, Elaine Pillay, from Acorn Street, said the problems started soon after the April floods, with intermittent supply followed by tap water that was “smelling like sewage”.
“Water is such a precious commodity, but we can’t drink it or even bath in it. Our cries to the municipality are falling on deaf ears,” she complained.
Precious Dube, from Candy Street in Madiba Valley, said she had a rash all over her body after bathing in contaminated tap water, while her children did not go to school on Friday because of runny stomachs.
“My neighbour has four children. For two weeks their stomachs have been running and they are now losing weight. My skin is red and itchy all over. I went to Nagina Clinic for treatment, but it did not help my condition.”
Our Burning Planet tried to contact senior officials at the Nagina Clinic and St Mary’s Hospital to find out if there had been an unusual increase in diarrhoea or other gastrointestinal cases reported in recent weeks, but was referred to provincial health department spokesperson Agiza Hlongwane. He did not respond to our queries on whether there was a confirmed correlation between tap water and diarrhoea.
Suraj Baijnath, whose wife died from diarrhoea complications on 10 August, said tap water was contaminated about a month ago and the family had boiled their water or relied on donations of bottled water from the Gift of the Givers and other neighbourhood charity groups.
“When the municipality released it again to our taps we assumed it was purified. My wife consumed some tap water without boiling it and her stomach started running. We rushed her to hospital on Monday [8 August] and they gave her antibiotics and rehydration solution. On Wednesday, we took her again, but it was too late. She passed away before reaching St Mary’s.”
Acorn Street resident Niki Poonwasi said he informed a senior eThekwini official about Baijnath’s death on the day she died, but no one from the city had visited the family to inquire officially about her death — though tap water samples had been collected for analysis.
No warnings broadcast
“Up to now, there are no notices on streets that the water is not safe to drink. Nor have any warnings been broadcast by loudspeakers in the affected community,” he said on 19 August.
In response to formal queries from Our Burning Planet, the city said: “The public is advised that water testing has revealed that tap water in the Birchwood area does not meet acceptable standards for human consumption.
“Following remedial work done last month to eradicate suspected contamination, the results for water quality in this area have always come out safe for consumption. The city continuously monitored water quality in the area and tests have [now] revealed that potable water is no longer of good quality. The municipality is investigating sources of contamination and has so far identified and cleared some pipeline blockages, which has reduced the level of contamination. The only area affected is Birchwood and not nearby areas or the entire city.”
In response to follow-up questions on what measures eThekwini was taking to adequately warn and notify all residents of this risk to their health, the city said: “We post alerts on social media when we become aware of such issues. We also use mainstream and community media. Most importantly, we also do loudhailing directly in communities.”
Asked why the city did not appear to have issued renewed warnings immediately after Baijnath’s death and other reports of illness in the community, the city said: “A colleague who lives in the area did mention the death of Mrs Baijnath informally to colleagues and the community concerns that her death was due to consumption of polluted tap water. However, this was at the time that the initial alert was already out and work was under way to do repairs.”
While the exact reasons for the recent contamination in the Mariannhill/Birchwood area have not been given, the US Environmental Protection Agency (Usepa) has suggested that cross-connections and backflow can result in polluted tap water.
“Within distribution systems there exist points called cross-connections where non-potable water can be connected to potable sources. These cross-connections can provide a pathway for backflow of non-potable water into potable sources,” Usepa said in a briefing published in 2001.
“Backflow can occur either because of reduced pressure in the distribution system (termed back-siphonage) or the presence of increased pressure from a non-potable source (termed backpressure). Back-siphonage may be caused by a variety of circumstances, such as main breaks, flushing, pump failure, or emergency firefighting water drawdown. During incidents of backflow, chemical and biological contaminants have caused illness and deaths. The number of incidents actually reported is believed to be a small percentage of the total number of backflow incidents in the United States.”
Public health risk
Usepa said an investigation of cross-connections and backflow dating back to 1970 showed that these incidents represented a significant public health risk.
“Although a wide range of contaminants have been reported (including sewage, pesticides, coolants, and detergents) the number of contamination incidents is considered a likely underestimate due to problems in detecting, reporting, and documenting incidents.
“These problems include: an inability to detect incidents without health effects; incidents with health effects that are unreported because affected individuals do not realise a connection between their illness and the drinking water; no requirement on either health officials or water system officials to report detected backflow incidents; and no central repository for reported illness.”
Earlier this month, the Democratic Alliance issued a public statement, urging the eThekwini Water and Sanitation Department to conduct further water quality testing around the city after growing reports of contaminated water in the municipality.
“eThekwini residents have reported that certain reservoirs, namely the Birchwood and Virginia reservoirs, appear to carry contaminated water.”
The DA said it had also raised questions regarding the persistent failure of several sewer systems, compromised potable water quality and clarity on the state of water tankers across the city.
“eThekwini’s water and sanitation unit has been haemorrhaging for years and the city still seems unfazed by this ecological and health disaster which plagues thousands of ratepayers.”
On 10 August, the city issued a statement that said “significant progress has been made to restore sewer pipes in areas where wastewater treatment plants and sanitation infrastructure were severely damaged during the April floods.
“The damaged infrastructure included broken sewer mains, overflowing sewer manholes, blocked sewer lines, and washed away sewer pipes. This resulted in some of the city’s beaches being closed due to the high levels of E. coli in the water.
“We are aware that much more still needs to be done, but we are doing our best to ensure that water and sewer-related matters are addressed urgently,” said Water and Sanitation Unit chief Ednick Msweli. DM/OBP