Our Burning Planet


Government official points to eThekwini negligence for Durban’s rising tide of beach pollution

Government official points to eThekwini negligence for Durban’s rising tide of beach pollution
Dead fish in the Umgeni River. (Photo: Steve Cohen)

A senior provincial government official has claimed in court papers that eThekwini leaders reopened several of the city’s beaches late last year without consulting or getting prior approval from his department and the national Department of Water and Sanitation.

A senior provincial government official has laid the blame for the recent Durban sewage crisis at the front door of the eThekwini municipality, alleging that senior city officials were guilty of a “consistent and blatant failure” to halt the pollution of local rivers and the ocean — even before the April 2022 floods.

He has also called for the criminal prosecution of three senior eThekwini officials following repeated cases of environmental pollution, some dating back to at least 2019.

Provincial government director call for prosecution of eThekwini officials.

In legal papers filed in response to a recent Durban high court application by ActionSA, the official suggested that eThekwini leaders reopened several of the city’s beaches late last year without consulting or getting prior approval from his department and the national Department of Water and Sanitation.

Quite apart from the serious risk of sewage spills killing aquatic life and spreading water-borne diseases such as gastroenteritis, cholera or typhoid, there was also evidence of large volumes of toxic industrial effluent entering rivers and the sea. 

Recent sewage spills in the Pinetown area. (Photo: Edtea)

The court case has also brought to light the minutes of an internal meeting last year at which a senior engineer employed by eThekwini for the last 16 years suggests that one of the reasons for the crisis is that Durban’s sanitation infrastructure is “collapsing” or reaching the end of its life span.

Provincial government warning notice highlighting the risk of industrial effluent to human health.

In his affidavit, Dr Bonginkosi Robert Dlamini denied that his department had been dilatory or “lackadaisical” in responding to the sewage crisis that led to the prolonged closure of the port city’s tourist beaches.

Far from it, insisted Dlamini, who is the acting Chief Director and Director of compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Affairs, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea).

While acknowledging that sewage treatment works and pump stations had been damaged severely by major floods in April and May last year, Dlamini also produced evidence that his department had served numerous pollution clean-up warning notices or directives on the city prior to the floods, but the response from the city was not “satisfactory”.

As a result, his department — and members of the Green Scorpions environmental management inspectorate — had laid criminal charges with the SA Police Services calling for the prosecution of City Manager Musa Mbhele, former City Manager Sipho Cele and the head of eThekwini’s Water and Sanitation Department Ednick Msweli, for their alleged failure to control pollution levels.

Extract from Green Scorpions criminal case against eThekwini.

Dlamini’s 234-page affidavit and annexures, signed on 6 February, were submitted in response to a civil case lodged in the high court in November against eThekwini, four Cabinet ministers and several government departments by ActionSA. The party is calling for a court-sanctioned independent investigation and urgent rehabilitation plan following the lengthy delay in repairing the city’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.

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The latest water quality tests by the independent Talbot laboratories group suggest that E.coli bacteria pollution levels along the central Durban beachfront have reduced considerably over recent weeks. However, water quality at Umhlanga beaches is still rated as poor or critical — while pollution in the Umgeni River remains sky-high.

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One sample, collected along Riverside Road close to the Umgeni Bird Park on 2 February, measured E.coli levels at over 10 million cfu/100ml (far above the 500 cfu maximum limit recommended for safe recreation in SA water quality guidelines)

Latest water sampling results from Umgeni River.

Though Dlamini took issue with ActionSA’s proposal to hold several government departments jointly accountable for delays in containing the pollution (including his own department), Dlamini said eThekwini officials had failed to comply with several directives or pre-directives warning them that they faced fines of up to R10-million or substantial jail terms.

This “consistent and blatant failure by (the eThekwini Municipality) has resulted in a complete failure” in enforcing their duty of care to the environment under the National Environmental Management Act, national waste legislation and the city’s own pollution by-laws, he said.

“[Edtea] contends that it has taken all reasonable measures through using legislation to prevent the pollution of rivers, estuaries and the ocean.”

As part of his department’s defence, Dlamini attached copies of numerous directives and pre-directives served on the city since 2020 as well as a record of several meetings his department held with the city and officials from the national department of water affairs.

At one of these meetings (on 19 January, 2022) officials discussed the proactive day-to-day maintenance procedures for eThekwini wastewater treatment works as well as sewage-related closures of Durban beaches.

Durban beach closure boards. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

The minutes show that Dlamini raised his concern about the “continuous” non-compliance by eThekwini with wastewater discharge into the environment. This was something the city needed to respond to and resolve.

Charmaine Kok, a project manager at eThekwini municipality, suggested that some of the sewage pollution cases across the city were the result of heavy rain, climate change, vandalism or budget issues.

At the same meeting, a senior engineer identified in the minutes by his initials LT, commented that while wastewater facilities were maintained on a daily basis, “the major challenge is the collapsing infrastructure which has reached its lifespan (SIC) and the fact that to resolve some of these issues can be very costly”.

Extract from minutes of January 2022 meeting between government officials on Durban sewage crisis.

As a result, the engineer suggested that action plans to address these problems would need to address the root causes and be conducted at a strategic level.

The minutes also record that Edtea issued a pre-directive notice to the city in 2019 to halt sewage pollution flows from the Ohlange/Blackburn village pump station (which has been linked more recently to pollution of the Umhlanga tourist beaches and river estuary).

In apparent despair following repeated failures to address the pollution, Edtea later served another compliance notice on city manager Musa Mbhele and laid criminal charges against the city on 16 October, 2022 at Verulam Police Station for illegally discharging untreated sewage into the Ohlanga Lagoon.

Ethekwini City Manager Musa Mbhele

eThekwini City Manager Musa Mbhele. (Photo: Thuli Dlamini)

Similar criminal charges had also been laid against the city following a major fish kill in the Isipingo Lagoon and for sewage pollution in a residential area in Phoenix.

So far, Dlamini’s department is the only respondent to have filed responding papers. The other respondents in the court case include the eThekwini Municipality, Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, Environment Minister Barbara Creecy and Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. DM/OBP

Effluent pours from a broken sewer line in Riverhorse Valley Durban on May 12 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

Absa OBP

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