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BUCKLING UNDER LEGAL PRESSURE

Durban agrees to provide ‘action plan’ on sewage pollution — one year after the floods

Durban agrees to provide ‘action plan’ on sewage pollution — one year after the floods
Ethekwini Deputy City Manager and head of the parks and recreation department, Dr Musa Gumede, takes a dip in the sea at Umhlanga beach on 1 December 2022, during a publicity campaign by the city to woo tourists back to the sea in Durban. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Nigh on a year after devastating floods hit the KwaZulu-Natal coastline, Durban municipal leaders have agreed finally to publish a detailed ‘action plan’ to repair and upgrade the city’s battered sewage and water infrastructure network.

The undertaking by the eThekwini municipality to publish its clean-up action plan within 30 days, comes in response to legal pressure by the ActionSA political party, which lodged an application against the city and other government departments in the Durban division of the High Court of South Africa on 16 November 2022. 

In a court affidavit signed last week (31 March), eThekwini Water and Sanitation chief Ednick Msweli insisted that it was now safe to swim again at most Durban beaches — and that the city’s 8,500km network of water and sanitation pipelines was now “substantially operational”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Criminal charges laid against Durban municipality as pressure mounts for probe and action on polluted waters

Therefore, he argued, there was no reason why the high court should agree to ActionSA’s request for the appointment of a team of independent engineers to prepare a report on how to “permanently restore” the city’s water and sewage network.

Msweli said he did not deny that sewage bacteria readings had reached “unacceptable levels” at several Durban beaches when ActionSA first lodged its court papers. But nearly five months after court action was launched, there was no longer any need for an investigation into this issue.

He also hit back at claims that eThekwini had been “dilatory” in its response to the Durban river and beach sewage pollution crisis, claiming this was “a gross distortion of the truth”. 

The truth, he argued, was that most of the city’s water and sewerage infrastructure was designed by engineers to withstand a one-in-50-year flood event.

durban sewage

Sewage effluent pours from a sewer line at Westbrook beach north of Durban in late 2022. (Photo: Supplied)

But, during April and May 2022, the city’s infrastructure had been pummelled by two separate one-in-100-year flood events barely a month apart, and this led to devastating damage. 

The municipality, he said, had taken “all reasonable steps and done all things necessary within the constraints of its available budget” to remedy the flood damage and sewage pollution crisis. He also denied suggestions that up to 80% of the city’s wastewater or sewage infrastructure was “dysfunctional” when ActionSA initiated the high court application. 

According to Msweli, only 3% of the city’s water and sanitation infrastructure network needed refurbishment, replacement or modernisation before the April/May 2022 floods. He stated that initial water and sanitation infrastructure damage from the floods was assessed at around R1.4-billion, though this estimate had since been “significantly increased”.

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

eThekwini simply did not have the budget to repair the damage immediately, despite recent pledges from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta) to provide R1.5-billion for all flood-related damage.

As things turned out, he said, eThekwini initially diverted nearly R74-million of its normal expenditure to repair the water and sewage network immediately after the floods, while Cogta initially provided a further R49-million for sewage network repairs in the city.

These initial sums were “totally inadequate” for the sheer scale of the damage. Of the more recent Cogta funding pledge of R1.5-billion, only R228-million had been earmarked for the eThekwini Water and Sanitation department. While this would go “a long way” to repair the damage, it was still significantly less than what was needed.

Oddly, however, Msweli says in his affidavit that the latest estimates to fully repair and upgrade water and sanitation infrastructure in Durban were now closer to R3.5-billion over the next 10 years — in contrast to his earlier assertions that only 3% of the city’s water and sanitation infrastructure network needed refurbishment, replacement or modernisation before the April/May 2022 floods.

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R3.5bn is needed to repair and upgrade Durban’s water and sewage pipe network — a court affidavit from Ethekwini Water and Sanitation head Ednick Msweli. (Image: Supplied)

Msweli’s assertions that the municipality “took all reasonable steps” to avert sewage pollution in the city also stand in stark contrast to evidence from several fellow government officials.

One example comes from Dr Bonginkosi Robert Dlamini, the acting chief director and director of compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Affairs, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (Edtea). In his affidavit to the high court, Dlamini said his department served numerous pollution clean-up warning notices or directives on the eThekwini municipality — well before 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 Service calling for the prosecution of City Manager Musa Mbhele, former city manager Sipho Cele, and Msweli, for their alleged failure to control pollution levels.

‘Consistent and blatant failure’

Dlamini stated in an affidavit that there had been a “consistent and blatant failure” to halt the pollution of local rivers and the ocean — even before the April 2022 floods. Dlamini also provided 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 water affairs department. 

A second example came from Ashley Starkey, a senior official in the national Department of Water and Sanitation, who confirmed that he sent a directive to eThekwini City Manager Mbhele on 4 July 2022, expressing concern that city officials were “not engaging in good faith” to resolve the sewage pollution crisis swiftly. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Government official points to eThekwini negligence for Durban’s rising tide of beach pollution

A third example came from Vanessa Bendeman, a director-general in the national Department of Environmental Affairs, who cited frequent (pre-flood) pollution from the Mahatma Gandhi (Point Road) sewage pump station. Due to persistent and unresolved sewage overflows from this sewage pump station, Bendeman’s department laid a criminal charge against the city in November 2021. 

Bendeman described how, since about 2017, nearby shopping centres and restaurants had “been severely affected by the unbearable stench, unhygienic conditions and unsightliness” of sewage in the harbour.

According to Msweli, there are currently no raw sewage overflows from Durban’s sewage treatment plants — though he conceded that (semi-treated) wastewater from two of the city’s largest treatment works, the Northern and Umbilo treatment works, still did not meet regulatory standards.

He said some sewage pump stations were still not functioning, due to “vandalism” or because of equipment failures.

Msweli concluded his affidavit by acknowledging that senior eThekwini officials met ActionSA legal representatives on March 29 and had agreed to provide the party with a detailed “action plan” within 30 days, setting out the steps that would need to be taken to fix the remaining flood damage and sewage pollution problems in the city.

Thereafter, he said, ActionSA would decide whether it planned to continue with its court action. DM/OBP

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