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R100,000 raised by community to pressurise for clean-ups of eThekwini’s polluted rivers and seas

R100,000 raised by community to pressurise for clean-ups of eThekwini’s polluted rivers and seas
A sinkhole developing in a main parking lot near North Beach, which has been left unattended for months. Car-guards said they placed the barrier in the hole as a warning to motorists. Photo by James Mullany

Fed up with sustained elevated levels of sewage pollution in Durban’s key river systems and beaches, plus years of neglect along the city’s famed beach promenade, local activists, non-profits, businesses and water sports enthusiasts have committed to take on the eThekwini Municipality head on.

This week, the groups held a joint fundraiser attended by more than 200 people at the Southern Sun Elangeni Hotel on Durban promenade. 

Guests included many of Durban’s top surfers, leaders in the canoe and surf-ski paddling field, national athletes, former Springbok rugby player and sports commentator Warren Brosnihan, and former Protea spin bowler Pat Symcox.  

The event raised close to R100,000.

The funds are to be donated to the non-profit organisation Save our Rivers and Sea from Sewage. Last year Save our Rivers opened a criminal case against the City over the state of the Umbilo River Wastewater Treatment Works (WTW) and is currently building a civil case against the City. 

The money raised will mostly be used to employ a wastewater specialist to compile a comprehensive report of the city’s rivers and wastewater treatment works. 

Johan Jooste, a Durban lawyer and director at Save our Rivers, said they want to bring a civil matter against the City that will seek to compel the municipality to fix specific infrastructure and be accountable to the court. 

Seeking accountability and fixes

“Our expert must identify and prioritise problem areas. It is not good enough to get an order directing the eThekwini Municipality to restore the entire wastewater treatment system. The court must be approached for an order that a specific pump be repaired within a specific time period,” said Jooste.

He said Save our Rivers would seek a court order requiring city officials to provide progress reports to the court at regular intervals, failing which they could be arrested for contempt of a court order.

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This civil matter will be the third entrant in the space seeking some form of corrective action from the courts over eThekwini’s sewage crisis, following closely behind political parties the Democratic Alliance (DA) and ActionSA, both of which are expected to be heard by the Pietermaritzburg and Durban high courts respectively next month.

Crisis and floods blame game

The City has maintained that the current crisis is in fact the fault of the devastating April 2022 floods that killed more than four hundred people and displaced several thousand families, destroying and damaging homes, businesses and key infrastructure.

While the floods clearly added to the City’s woes, its own evidence indicates that the municipality has been well aware of the crisis for several years. 

Every month since 2020, the City has published river quality reports.

A recently closed restaurant venue on Durban’s Golden Mile that has been stripped by vandals. After
mild rains, many of the storm water drains pop open, with rubbish and sewage seeping onto the
promenade, eThekwini’s prime tourist attraction. Photo by James Mullany

A glance at these reports indicates that the river quality has been in a degenerative state over that period and, in most cases, the prominent levels of E.coli are centred around wastewater treatment works that have become increasingly unreliable.

More alarming is that the City’s threshold for what it deems “critical” is 20 times higher than that accepted by the likes of private laboratory service Talbot. Talbot places its “critical” E.coli level at 400 parts E.coli (Cfu) to 100ml of water. The city’s “critical” threshold is 10,000Cfu/100ml. 

‘Acceptable’ data

In the City’s data, anything between 400-2,000Cfu/100ml is deemed “acceptable”. 

In January 2020, the City had “critical” levels of E.coli by its own measure along 18 river systems in the vicinity of wastewater treatment works. Over 12 months, this crept to 20, and by January 2022 the number stood at 21.  

The number dropped to 19 sites in January 2023, but there were at least another four sites where the E.coli count was considered “poor” – between 2,000-10,000Cfu/100ml. 

Shane Driver, a Durban-based business coach who helped organise the fundraiser, said that he, like all residents and event attendees, had a vested interest in looking for a solution.

“Private businesses impact the economy and transform communities, but you cannot have this impact if communities and businesses are falling apart. The whole idea of this fundraiser is to build hope and to show what is possible.” 

At the event, Driver, together with surf shop owner Jean-Marc Tostee, former big-wave surfer turned river clean-up champion Josh Redman and Janet Simpkins of non-profit Adopt a River, all reiterated that the sewage crisis and lack of investment in infrastructure would not abate without sustained community involvement. 

In order to obtain independent results to measure against eThekwini Municipality’s water test findings, water activists have been privately funding tests along the city’s beaches and the Umgeni, Umdloti, Ohlanga and Umbilo rivers for several months.

Alarming E-coli levels in Umbilo River

This week WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), and Durban-based Adopt a River asked the city to “immediately address the dangerously high levels of E-coli in the Umbilo River”. 

Both organisations said they had conducted a series of tests along the river that found alarmingly high levels of E.coli in the system – some with E.coli counts in excess of 61,3300Cfu/100ml. 

In a letter addressed to eThekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, which included the testing data, they asked the City to accelerate the repair and maintenance programme of the Umbilo River WTW, to publicise the repair schedule, and to investigate, charge and fine any individual or business illegally discharging chemical and biological waste into the river. 

“Various organisations and individuals across the City and KwaZulu-Natal are working towards finding long-term solutions for the poor state of our river systems. We are exploring all possible means of changing the status quo. One proven method is the continued testing and publication of E. coli results by private individuals and non-profit organisations. We will continue to test, expose and demand accountability river by river, beach by beach,” said Simpkins. DM/OBP

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