Our Burning Planet

POISONED WATERS

Durban pledges ‘aggressive plan’ to clean up beach sewage pollution crisis before Christmas holidays

Durban pledges ‘aggressive plan’ to clean up beach sewage pollution crisis before Christmas holidays
Dead fish in the polluted Umgeni River. (Photo: Steve Cohen)

Worried by the threat to the beachfront tourism and hospitality industry, Durban municipal leaders say they have re-prioritised the city’s budget to start cleaning up sewage-fouled beaches in time for the December holiday season. The city is also appealing to the private sector to support its efforts.

Ethekwini Metro Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda — flanked by three senior representatives of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry — apologised again for the recent spate of beach closures largely caused by massive volumes of untreated human sewage in the wake of the April and May floods.

At a joint media briefing by the eThekwini municipality and Durban’s business chamber leaders on 6 October, Kaunda and city manager Musa Mbhele said recent tests suggested that water quality was improving at some of the central and southern beaches — but major expenditure and a “total overhaul” of the city’s wastewater treatment infrastructure was needed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Big stink as eThekwini hides its Durban beach water lab results

“From the outset, we acknowledge the frustration and inconvenience that the closure of beaches has caused the public and the business community and we apologise unreservedly. Beaches are a major tourist drawcard in Durban and their closure is disappointing to locals and visitors alike.

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Ethekwini city manager Musa Mbhele. (Photo: Thuli Dlamini)

“However, the safety of the public is paramount, which is why we are testing our water regularly to ascertain its quality (see footnote).”

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Government dithers over court or ‘stern talks’ to resolve Durban’s sewage pollution crisis

Kaunda said some of the work needed to repair damaged sanitation infrastructure would start shortly, following the recent allocation of disaster relief funding from the National Treasury.

“While most welcome, this funding of R184-million is inadequate, so we have reprioritised our budget to fast-track these much-needed repairs. The estimated cost of the repairs is R160-million for pump stations and over R300-million for water treatment works,” he said.

“It is our fervent hope that these all-important repairs will ensure that our beaches are not contaminated so that they can remain open throughout the festive season.”

Funding uncertainty

However, it remains unclear to what extent the new Treasury funding and the city’s “aggressive reprioritisation” of its own budget will alleviate the extent of pollution of local rivers and the sea. This is because the R184-million from Treasury comes in the form of a conditional grant, so large chunks are expected to be allocated to other urgent infrastructure repairs such as roads and bridges.

At another recent briefing in Durban, regional representatives of the national Department of Water and Sanitation estimated that eThekwini needed close to R1-billion to repair water-related infrastructure (roughly R300-million for potable water and a further R600-million for sanitation/wastewater).

durban sewage

The Northern Wastewater Treatment Works in Durban. (Photo: Shawn Herbst)

Even before the April floods, sewage leaks and overflows into local river systems had become a regular feature due to the collapse or neglect of facilities such as the Northern Wastewater Treatment Works on the banks of the Umgeni River, which enters the sea close to several tourist beaches.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “ ‘Mammoth effort’ and R8-billion needed to clean up SA’s stinking sewage and wastewater crisis”

durban sewage

The red dots indicate Durban treatment works in late September 2022 where just 0%-40% of sewage flows are being treated. Yellow dots show where 41%-80% of sewage is being treated and the smaller green dots indicate where 81-100% is being treated. (Graphic: Supplied)

According to a graphic released late last month, several of the largest sewage treatment plants are treating just 0% to 40% of sewage flows generated by the city’s residents, which means massive volumes of untreated sewage are still flowing straight into rivers and the sea.

In response to questions from Our Burning Planet on 6 October, Mbhele acknowledged that “the budget is never enough — so there is a need for novel measures”.

He said that with assistance from the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI), the city was also engaging with the Office of the Presidency and he was hopeful that “there is definitely going to be more financial support”.

Private sector

Mbhele said the city was inviting the private sector to lend a hand, and eThekwini hoped to release further details of a range of intervention plans “in the near future, once they are finalised”.

durban sewage phili

Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Palesa Phili. (Photo: Thuli Dlamini)

Significantly, the mayor and city manager were joined at the media briefing by DCCI chief executive, Phalesa Phili, chamber president Prasheen Maharaj and Samantha Croft, who chairs the chamber’s tourism forum.

Croft, who is also regional director of operations for the Tsogo Sun Hotels group — which owns the Maharani/Elangeni and other beachfront and Umhlanga hotels — said:

“We can sit and complain, or bat together. So we have opted to work together… We are working behind the scenes to get the beaches open so that we can encourage tourists to come to Durban for the Christmas season.”

In response to a question on whether the hospitality sector was suffering from cancelled bookings, Croft said there was no doubt that the closure of beaches had impacted the tourism sector negatively, but she suggested it was too early to say whether there had been a decline in Christmas season bookings.

Chamber president Maharaj and CEO Phili reiterated the message that the hospitality and tourism sector needed to get involved in solving the problems.

Visit Daily Maverick’s home page for more news, analysis and investigations

“The city is facing an existential crisis and we can’t sit on the sidelines. So we have decided to throw the weight of business and capital behind the city to avert an economic crisis… We have to be part of the solution,” said Maharaj in reference not just to the beach closures, but also to the repair of other flood-damaged infrastructure, power outages, illegal trading, enforcement of by-laws and “crime-and-grime” issues around the city.

durban sewage maharaj

Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Prasheen Maharaj. (Photo: Thuli Dlamini)

While “complaining and fighting government was not the solution”, the chamber would nevertheless press all three levels of government to keep the promises they made, Maharaj said.

The city has, meanwhile, announced that it is reopening at least four central beaches for bathing (Bay of Plenty, uShaka, North and Wedge beaches) and four southern beaches (Umgababa, Umkhomazi, Brighton and Treasure).

Kaunda has declared that “Durban is open for business and for tourists”, but the proof will be in the pudding. DM

Following the city’s recent refusal to provide Our Burning Planet with laboratory-certified results of recent beach water quality tests, we have now obtained some of these results following a formal application in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. We are now waiting for the city to explain several discrepancies and anomalies between the lab results and the E. coli (sewage pollution) readings displayed on public information signboards on the Durban beachfront.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Yep. And when there’s a cholera outbreak, they’ll blame the Umgeni water supply. Stay away Gauties, Durban beaches are full of shit. Believe the dead fish, they have more credibility than politicians.

  • Malcolm McManus says:

    So the floods where in May. Its now October. The new rainy season is already upon us. Lets just hope we don’t have more floods because we will be even deeper in the poo. But blaming the floods is narrow minded. I suspect decades of neglect to the infrastructure is the bigger issue here. I don’t see the lack of foresight changing any time soon.

  • Fiona Rielly says:

    They don’t properly run their existing undamaged sewage plants (Hillcrest being an example). And they have been neglecting this infrastructure for years. So if they can’t get the basics right I do not hold out much hope.

    • Malcolm McManus says:

      Hillcrest development boomed in the last 20 years from a peaceful little town to a thriving business and residential hub. There was serious lack of town planning to start with when all the development started.

  • Kelsey Boyce says:

    Take the budget and double it as 50% will no doubt end up lining pockets in some form of tender fraud. Expect to see a flurry of excited councilors driving new luxury vehicles on the road (although they will have to take care to navigate their way around the mangled barriers that inch ever closer to the actual fast lane of the freeway.) eThekwini municipality is a disgrace and now they have even broken the ocean.

  • Rob Wilson says:

    The floods are just an opportunistic lifebelt that cleaned the system out a bit. About half of all sewage generated does not go through a formal sewage treatment works and the population distribution ensures that most of it reports to the Umgeni river system in that area. The tides do the rest, and there is no quick fix Mr Mayor. From the moment you lose control of settlement you lose control of everything. You can ‘clean up the beach’ from a visual perspective but you have no control of ecoli. I have regarded north coast beaches as being unusable for years now.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    The problem with the sewage spill into the sea in Durban does not arise because of the floods. It is a historical problem since 2018 and even before blamed on faulty pumps but the reality is the corruption in that city. Also in the ANC diction the word maintenance does not exist. You have senior officials and a mayor standing corruption for funds related to waste management. The floods simply found an infrastructure that has been poorly maintained by the ANC for years. If you look at the budget you, see that it does not meet the required standards of National Treasury. It said that when a clown get to the palace he does not become a king, instead the palace turns into a circus. I listened to Mxolisi Kaunda and his lies on TV yesterday, because the ANC has these a new speciality of lies and excuses as Jesus approaches. The city is important for tourism and it means that its infrastructure has to be fixed and also, the ANC has turned the city into a slum as it has done to all cities it runs. You then ask from what hole do people who run that city come from. As tourism drys, the clowns now realise that they have to deal with the issue of sewage is a problem but it is not only the sewage infrastructure but all the infrastructure that requires to be fixed, the crime in the city centre and beaches and the grime. I realised that the fellow has no clue of what is required to turn Durban around from a slum city to be a proper tourist destination.

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