Big stink as eThekwini hides its Durban beach water lab results
The city’s failure to play open cards threatens to further erode public trust in a beach monitoring system designed to safeguard public health.
Something stinks on the Durban beachfront — and it’s not just the high sewage pollution levels that have led to the repeated closures of several city beaches over the past eight months.
Our investigations have revealed several curious discrepancies over the past few weeks with the sewage pollution readings posted on public signboards to guide bathers on whether it is safe to swim.
To be charitable, could it be that sloppy officials have simply been a bit slack in updating certain information on the signboards?
Or, is it possible that more senior officials have attempted to downplay the risks that could further damage one of the city’s major tourist attractions in the aftermath of the devastating April floods?
Whatever the cause, however, the city’s failure to explain these apparent inconsistencies — or to play open cards — threatens to further erode public trust in a beach monitoring system designed to safeguard public health.
For several years, the official E. coli (sewage bacteria) contamination levels in Durban’s seawater have been posted on beachfront noticeboards every two weeks for all to see.
But last week, when Our Burning Planet raised questions and asked the city to release its latest laboratory-certified water quality test results, we ran into a brick wall.
The city’s communications section acknowledged and responded to our written queries, but it simply ignored our request for lab certificates for the central beachfront, which stretches from the Umgeni River mouth to the harbour entrance.
We wanted to compare the lab-certified results (and the test dates) against the information posted on public noticeboards — but the city spurned two opportunities to provide these certificates.
Our request was prompted in part by the recent publication of independent test results from the citizen watchdog group Adopt-a-River and Talbot laboratories, which indicate that (on August 25) all the central beaches had E. coli levels above 500cfu/100 ml. These are levels considered to be “poor/unacceptable” from a recreational and public health perspective in terms of the South African Guidelines for Coastal Marine Waters.
We have also received queries from regular beach users, puzzled by discrepancies between E. coli readings posted on eThekwini’s public signboards and the independent Talbot results.
The Talbot results collected on August 25 suggest E. coli readings ranging between 740 to 2,410cfu along the central beaches (and in the case of Marine Surf/Addington beach, a very high reading of over 21,000cfu.
In contrast, the eThekwini readings displayed on public signboards early last week were generally much lower: Bay of Plenty (52), uShaka (86), Battery (110), Addington/Marine Surf (106), Point (120), North (148) and Country Club (393), with higher readings of 3,873 at Wedge beach and 24,196 at the more remote eThekwini beach near the polluted mouth of the Umgeni River.
Several of these discrepancies can be explained by different collection dates and sampling times, changing tides and currents, varying stormwater flows or other factors such as faecal residue from bathers or dogs defecating on the beach, leading to isolated spikes in E. coli.
Yet the Talbot test results and eThekwini measurements displayed on public signboards vary significantly at several beaches.
In an attempt to clarify some of these discrepancies, we visited several beaches along the central beachfront on 30 August. We also photographed water quality noticeboards between eThekwini beach in the north and uShaka beach in the south. Only Country Club and eThekwini beaches appeared to be closed.
Council test dates vary widely
Although the signboards state that samples are taken every second week, the test dates on display varied widely. Some signs indicated that tests had been done on 30 August. Others had test dates for 28 August or 16 August.
We contacted the city’s designated communications staff and provided them with copies of the latest Talbot test results and asked for:
- The city’s comments on the disparate results between Talbot’s higher readings and eThekwini’s lower readings posted on signboards.
- Copies of all eThekwini lab results for the two most recent sets of tests along the central beaches.
In its response, the city said: “As recently announced in an urgent public notice, beaches remain closed due to poor water quality. At this point, both our results and the results you shared with us show that the beaches need to remain closed until such a time that test results indicate that the water quality is acceptable.”
Most central beaches still open
But hang on there… Last time we checked, most of the central beaches were still open.
So we wrote back to the city, asking spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela to clarify whether the city was referring to a newsflash dated 22 August, headlined: “City closes some beaches due to high E. coli levels”?
That alert referred to just 13 of the city’s 25 designated beaches — of which only two are located along the central beachfront. Both of these beaches (eThekwini and Laguna) are located north of the hotel and restaurant belt.
We had also noted during our inspection on 30 August that most of the central beaches were open, with lifeguards on duty and bathing beacons in place. So, had the city now taken a decision to close all of the city’s beaches?
No response to queries
Who knows? We received no response to our request for clarity.
We also asked the city why it was ignoring/refusing our request to provide its latest laboratory-certified water quality test results.
We asked: Is the city trying to hide something? What faith could the public place in the city’s commitment to transparency and safeguarding the health of bathers if it refused to make these results public?
Again, no response (despite our undertaking to hold off publication for another day to allow the city more time to dig out the results and to clarify whether or not it was closing all the city’s beaches).
So, with no answers coming from the city, we went back to the beaches on Saturday afternoon to see what was happening.
Curiously, the public signboards at several beaches had changed.
Test results revised
At five beaches (eThekwini, Country Club, Battery, Bay of Plenty and Wedge), new test dates had been inserted on the signboards, indicating that a further set of test results had been taken on 1 September (just two days after the previously listed 30 August test dates). The test results had also been revised to significantly higher levels.
At uShaka beach, the test readings had also been changed (but not the test date) and an additional warning erected, declaring: “Beach closed. E. coli very high”.
What is the public to make of these confusing changes? Is it possible that eThekwini ran an additional set of tests on 1 September as a precaution? If so, why just two days after the 30 August test dates displayed at some beaches?
Were junior officials charged with changing the signboards just sloppy — or is there a more disturbing motive to explain significant changes to test dates and test readings at several beaches last week, immediately after we contacted the city to raise queries?
But these mixed messages are nothing new.
Lack of transparency
Earlier this year, we exposed how the city flip-flopped several times on beach closures during the New Year tourist season and reopened beaches when its own lab tests showed high readings at several beaches. Even before the devastation to sewage treatment infrastructure from the floods of April and May, a senior city official also attempted to dismiss visibly stained pulses of dark water pouring out of the Umgeni River mouth as the after-effects of heavy rains and invasive water hyacinth weeds.
The city’s lack of transparency on beach water quality has been further called into question by the recent absence of beach water quality results posted on the city’s website.
Commenting on Sunday, Adopt-a-River founder Janet Simpkins said she found it odd that the city was refusing to release its lab results.
“The public has a right to this information. What are the reasons for not disclosing it?” she asked.
Signs of progress
Thankfully, there may be some bright spots on the horizon.
In its brief response to our queries late last week, the city said that work was under way to repair the Northern Wastewater Treatment Works, a major (but dysfunctional) sewage purification facility that has been dumping untreated sewage into the Umgeni River since at least November 2021.
“The city is working speedily to effect the necessary repairs. The Northern Wastewater Treatment Works has had its power restored and the plant is now energised. We will redirect all the affected sewage water to the plant so we have normal treated water discharge to the affected riverine ecosystem. The Johanna Road pump station has been problematic due to vandalism. This is being addressed speedily.
“Please note that there were 97 pump stations severely damaged during the floods and we have repaired 52 of these stations and the balance will be repaired as well.”
The opposition Democratic Alliance has also voiced concern about the recent closure of more than 13 beaches due to high E. coli levels.
In a statement on 25 August, Councillor Yogiswarie Govender (DA Member of eThekwini Municipality Executive Committee) said she had written to the city manager, Musa Mbhele, to request the publishing of all water testing results on a weekly basis.
“The closure of the beaches is indeed sounding alarm bells for the future of eThekwini Municipality’s tourism industry, future business attractions and investments. Tourism, one of the few tradable commodities the city has to offer has again been dealt a massive blow.” DM/OBP
This report was compiled with assistance from Roving Reporters.