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No budget to match Durban’s pledge for Christmas season beach sewage clean-up

No budget to match Durban’s pledge for Christmas season beach sewage clean-up
Dead fish washed up on the banks of the Umgeni River after sewage flows. (Photo: Steve Cohen)

Durban’s municipal leaders have pledged to clean up the city’s sewage-polluted beaches in time for the Christmas holiday season — but now it has emerged that the eThekwini council has only managed to allocate less than 40% of the money needed for immediate repairs to its flood-damaged sanitation infrastructure.

A detailed report presented to the eThekwini council’s executive committee on Wednesday states that at least R706-million is needed to repair sewage treatment and conveyance systems damaged during the floods earlier this year.

Following a reprioritisation of city budgets and receipt of a central government grant, the city has now allocated R265-million for sanitation-related repair work, according to a report presented by Water and Sanitation head, Ednick Msweli.

But as Msweli’s budget availability table demonstrates, that still leaves a massive shortfall of R441-million (62% less than needed).

His report also includes a list of recent E. coli (sewage bacteria) tests at more than 40 beaches, indicating that at least 26 are still closed due to high E. coli readings or because of directives issued by the provincial department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs (EDTEA).

Msweli reported a “significant improvement” in seawater quality along most of the central beaches, but all the northern beaches (including Umhlanga) remain closed, while most southern beaches are also closed.

While E. coli readings at some of the beaches appear to be relatively low, they are still listed as closed due to the EDTEA directive. (Daily Maverick has been trying to obtain a copy of this directive for more than two weeks, but our requests to both the city and EDTEA officials have been refused.)

Northern treatment works

durban northern waste water

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

Overall, the eThekwini calculations for sewage infrastructure repairs appear to largely exclude a further R173-million needed to repair the Northern Waste Water Treatment Works.

This facility, the third-largest treatment works in the city, has been largely dysfunctional since before the April floods and is currently the main source of sewage flowing into the Umgeni River which enters the sea at Blue Lagoon before flowing mainly northwards to Umhlanga.

Msweli’s report notes that it will cost more than R48-million for the first phase of repairs to ensure that effluent released from this plant does not contaminate the Umgeni River.

durban umgeni river

Untreated sewage overflows fester along the banks of the Umgeni River. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

The second phase would cost a further R83-million to repair the balance of the mainstream treatment system, and a further R42-million to fix the sludge management system.

Last weekend, at a public meeting called by the Democratic Alliance on the banks of the Umgeni River, a senior city official gave an assurance that the Northern works would be largely up and running shortly, and that untreated sewage flows into the Umgeni should be resolved within two weeks.

Msweli confirmed that service providers had been appointed to investigate and design the repair work on the Kwandengezi, Glenwood and Umdloti sewage treatment works, but there’d been “no movement” in repair plans for either the Umbilo or Umhlanga treatment works.

Speaking after Msweli’s presentation to the city’s executive committee on Wednesday, eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda took a swipe at the DA for disseminating “negative publicity” about the beach closures, remarking that it was “unfortunate that there are parties that do not support (city) budgets”.

In reference to recent video recordings of sewage overflows, and a DA public meeting last weekend, Kaunda said: “You can make videos, but we are working (to resolve the sewage crisis).”

Rugby games postponed

He also strongly denied recent suggestions on social media that there was a link between Durban’s water and sewage problems and the recent postponement of two United Rugby Championship (URC) games.

The rugby games were called off last weekend after at least 50 players and officials from Ulster and Glasgow Warriors developed severe gastro-intestinal infections while staying at two Umhlanga beachfront hotels.

“People should not believe the things they see on social media networks. The CEO of the URC has confirmed that it’s possible they contracted this (illness) outside the country.”

He was referring to a statement by URC tournament CEO Martin Anayi earlier this week during a conference call with journalists. According to a report on supersport.com, Anayi said: “There are some early indications now that they brought it with them.”

Ulster managers said 29 players and 13 support staff became unwell in the lead-up to the fixture with the Durban-based Sharks, and that a medical team had confirmed the presence of both E. coli and Norovirus in test samples.

Nevertheless, speculation remains rife on why two teams from different countries (Ireland and Scotland) both fell ill while staying in Umhlanga.

Tourist season challenge

Reacting to Msweli’s presentation, DA exco member Andre Beetge challenged suggestions that sewage problems south of Durban have largely been resolved.

As a local resident, Beetge said he was familiar with the situation in the Amanzimtoti area and if certain information in Msweli’s presentation was incorrect about the situation in the south, he questioned what reliance could be placed on information about the rest of the city.

“We are now five-and-a-half weeks from the tourist season,” he said, urging city management to put pressure on officials to speed up supply chain management approvals for vital repairs.

Fellow DA member Yogis Govender urged the city to publish beach water quality tests on a more regular basis as this could help alleviate concerns by tourists.

She also voiced concern that Msweli’s report had not been provided to councillors before the meeting to properly interrogate its contents beforehand.

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Councillor Mduduzi Nkosi (IFP) expressed concern that tourists were waiting to see whether Durban could resolve the sewage problem before the festive season. 

He suggested the city needed to engage both the national and provincial government for urgent financial assistance “so that we are not alone in this problem. What is important is to see how we can get (more) money rather than criticism”.

Nkosenhle Madlala (ANC) said: “We need to remind ourselves that recovery needs a lot of budget, which we don’t have. Maybe we need to go back to province and national to implore them to assist.”

Madlala also lamented that municipal finance procedures were “cumbersome” when trying to procure funds following a disaster.

Beetge, however, has suggested that the crisis is not due solely to flood damage, but to long-standing neglect by the municipality.

“Money has been squandered (over several years) rather than being dedicated to preventive maintenance of our sewage infrastructure,” he said after the meeting. DM/OBP.

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    “preventive maintenance” is a misnomer with the ANC government, and it’s not only beaches. @5 year of systemic neglect of everything that once worked.

  • Trevor Pope says:

    It would be interesting know what the projected losses of tourism revenue are, as a consequence of the beach closures.

  • Clive McGill says:

    After years of neglect, Durban is largely finished as a tourist destination. It is dirty, run-down, crime-ridden and now the beaches are toilets. Who would spend money going there? The ANC has killed it’s best flow of income into the city.

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