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Western Cape’s Strand residents and surfers up in arms over sewage flowing into streets and ocean

Western Cape’s Strand residents and surfers up in arms over sewage flowing into streets and ocean

Surfers, beach users and fed-up residents in Strand have had enough of the sewage flowing in their streets, affecting households and businesses, and the poor coastal water quality caused by ailing and ageing sewage infrastructure in the area.

Residents, beach users and businesses in Strand, in the Helderberg region of the City of Cape Town, have told Daily Maverick that the Lourens River Estuary is not safe for recreational purposes because of the crumbling and over-capacitated Trappies sewer pipeline.

This often leads to sinkholes, leaking pipes and sewage overflows discharging into the stormwater system, towards the outlets in the ocean and the Lourens River Estuary. The Lourens River is a Protected Natural Environment.

The issue has plagued the Strand community from as far back as 2009 when complaints first started rolling in from residents and beach users.

A common saying in the area is that surfers in Strand are immune to diseases because they constantly surf and swim in toxic waters. Michael Mitchell, a resident who has been surfing in the area for more than 25 years, recently became ill with diarrhoea after surfing off Greenways in Strand last Wednesday.  

“I know the difference between a river runoff — which will be mostly soil, bits of branches and waste — and raw sewage. For the last 10 years, there’s been a peak in water waste being pumped into the sea, and being classified as ‘treated’. That is absolute nonsense when we are getting sick. I remember one day we paddled out and there was soapy residue and a chemical haze over the water that gets you in the nose and disturbs your senses.”

Living in Strand, Mitchell says he cannot remember what the sea used to smell like. “The smell in the air is raw sewage.”

Another resident, who is a civil engineer with expertise in municipal sewage works and asked to remain anonymous, explained that the sewage from Strand and Gordon’s Bay is transferred via a bulk sewer line system called the Trappies Outfall Sewer. The section of the pipeline through the residential area of Strand North and crossing below the Lourens River en route to the Lourens River Pump Station is almost 50 years old. 

“The main pipeline is a 900mm diameter asbestos pipeline that is almost constantly flowing full (it should be flowing at about 80% capacity). Thus, whenever it rains hard there is a strong inflow of stormwater into the sewage system in the catchment area that causes the Trappies sewer to overflow in the Strand North residential area. This causes pressure on the old pipeline and causes leaks that then end up forming sinkholes,” he said.

The sewage overflows discharge into the stormwater system towards the outlets, in the ocean or the Lourens River Estuary. Overflows have been reported to the City of Cape Town since 2009. 

“As a result of this, the water quality at Strand Beach and the Lourens River Estuary is frequently very poor and not safe for recreational purposes. There is, however, no proactive closing of beaches or placing of warnings and there have been frequent reports of surfers falling ill after surfing in the contaminated water on the local WhatsApp groups,” he says. 

While the city has committed to refurbishing the Trappies sewer pipeline, he says short-term measures need to be discussed and implemented urgently because of the impacts the ailing infrastructure has on residents, businesses and the natural and urban environment. 

A street in Strand overrun with wastewater and sewage in 2020. In 2023, Strand residents continue to be subjected to recurring sewage spills from collapses on the overcapacitated and ageing Trappies sewer line. (Photo: Supplied)

There are several sources of sewage leaking into the Lourens River: overflowing drains, informal (and illegal) housing structures erected in the riverbed while it is dry, poor provision and upkeep of sewer systems in several areas bordering the river resulting in sewerage draining into the stream, and the sewerage pumping station right at the mouth of the river as it flows into False Bay. (Photo: Supplied)

Health impacts on residents and beach users 

Dr Jo Barnes, senior lecturer emeritus at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Global Health, Health Systems and Public Health, lives in Somerset West and is acutely aware of the problem. 

Barnes agreed that the sheer volume of sewage passing through the Trappies pipeline, together with the regular power outages, cause leaks and overflows that take untreated sewage straight into the sea close to the beach. 

She said the Lourens River was already heavily polluted and the extra load of sewage coming from the pumping station at times made the marine environment hazardous for recreational activities. 

“The health impacts are many, depending on the contents of the untreated or poorly treated sewage that entered the river. The major infectious consequences are gastrointestinal (diarrhoea, vomiting, fever, etc), eye, ear and skin infections, liver infections, kidney infections and infections from any other pathogens that may be present. Cholera organisms are particularly well-quipped to survive in brackish or marine waters and the entry of untreated sewage at the mouth of the river is of particular concern. 

“The pollution will also affect any marine life harvested from the sea (fish, oysters, mussels, etc). They carry the pollution pathogens and in that way also spread the infections to people who had not actually been to the beach or came into direct contact with the river or seawater,” she said. 

Sinkholes and sewer pipe collapses 

Entire streets in Strand have been flooded with wastewater, with residents unable to pull into their own driveways. Picture the Grand Canal of Venice with towering buildings lining its banks — except in some Strand streets, the “canal” is filled with wastewater.

Imagine waking up to your backyard flooded with wastewater, or that you are an entrepreneur frequently losing business because you are located on a street that constantly faces sewage overflows and construction that never seems to solve the problem.  

This has been the lived reality for the community in Strand for years, with residents up in arms about the impact the ailing sewerage infrastructure is having on their health, livelihoods, urban and natural environment. 

During the past six months alone, Strand has seen multiple collapses all along the Trappies sewer pipeline. Residents refer to De Villiers Street as “Shit Street”, with another sinkhole often appearing immediately after one sinkhole is filled by the municipality — the first 200m of the street have been dug up more than 20 times.

A business owner in the street said: “The road is closed at least eight out of 12 months of the year, and that doesn’t include the construction guys making as much damage as they are supposed to be fixing.”

Dustin Meyer, owner of the business Bargain Home, added that besides the constant work being done on the sewer line in the road, having to work with the constant smell of sewage has been atrocious and a year ago he suffered from a serious illness that could have been worsened by the toxins from the sewage. 

Lifelong surfer, paddler and lifesaver at Strand Beach, Jamii Hamlin has raised concerns that there’s no warning from the municipality when sewage leaks into the sea. 

“These day-to-day incidents have been ignored. There are contractors who are attending to this work (of recurring sewerage infrastructure collapses and sinkholes) and it’s a tireless job because of the frequency and the consistency of the probidlem. But ultimately, there’s no warning about any sewage entering the water,” he says. 

Hamlin said there have been times when he found himself paddling through plumes and sometimes through sewage and litter. 

The Louren’s River on 5 August 2023, where sewage and wastewater from a nearby stormwater outlet flowed into the river. (Photo: Kristin Engel)

Sewage pollution of the Lourens River Estuary on 8 September 2022 due to sewage discharges to the river from stormwater outlets and seepage from sinkhole excavations and leaking pipes. (Photo: Supplied)

‘No sewage flowing into the beach’

The City of Cape own reassured residents that the Trappies sewer pipeline was set to be refurbished to reduce the chance of sewer collapses, at an estimated cost of R100-million for approximately 4.1km of pipeline, and a further R250-million to replace 100km in the 2023/24 financial year

Zahid Badroodien, the mayoral council member for water and sanitation, said: “The city’s Water and Sanitation Directorate has appointed an emergency contractor to conduct point repairs whenever sewer collapses are experienced. However, the city is currently finalising the refurbishment contract for this section of the pipeline, and if all goes well, the plan is to have a contractor on the ground at the beginning of 2024.”

The declining state of water quality at Lourens River and Strand Beach was not disputed by the city. Eddie Andrews, the deputy mayor and mayoral council member for spatial planning and environment, said the city’s long-term data showed water quality at Strand near the Lourens River mouth was consistently rated as poor. 

“This is consistent with other sites that are close to a river mouth or stormwater outlets. Urban rivers are known to carry high pollution levels, especially if they receive effluent or stormwater. Thus, the trend and pattern of poor coastal water quality remain constant where stormwater outlets and river mouths remain significant sources of pollution.”

He said sewer blockages and overflows, illegal discharges, and general urban run-off and waste disposal discharged via the city’s stormwater system and rivers had a significant impact on Cape Town’s coastal environment and coastal water quality.

When asked about the health impacts beachgoers and residents were experiencing, Patricia van der Ross, the mayoral council member for community services and health, said that according to their records, no recent waterborne-related disease cases had been reported to the city’s Health Department for investigation.

Van der Ross said the city health and environmental health teams routinely monitored coastal water quality. 

“In addition, we monitor sewage spillage incidents in the area and create service requests for the relevant service departments to action where incidents occur and in the event of the rare occasions where a sewer spillage occurs along the beachfront, city health fulfils its mandate of putting up the necessary warning signs in the affected areas of the beach to notify the public not to swim in the polluted water. However, we must convey that these warning signs often get stolen a few days after they are put up.”  

Badroodien said that when there is a sewer-related incident, various city departments are activated to respond to it in the shortest possible time frame. “Currently, there is no sewage flowing into the beach or the Lourens River.”

The Lourens River Catchment Forum was established on 29 June to focus on enhancing the ambient water quality of its waterways, listing and discussing the main pollution sources, and providing a strategic approach and high-level action plan to address pollution within the catchment area.  

Strand’s problems are mirrored across South Africa, where there are huge problems in sewage disposal and sanitation, with failing infrastructure, poor or even absent maintenance and hugely under-planned capacity expansion. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Thankyou DM for making work of suggested articles. DM is tops

  • Steve Davidson says:

    “However, we must convey that these warning signs often get stolen a few days after they are put up.”

    And there you have it in a nutshell.

    Add this (from one of the photos) “… informal (and illegal) housing structures erected in the riverbed while it is dry”.

    Of course, not forgetting the disgraceful taxi strike. The Cape is being brought down to the catastrophic Third World level of the rest of SA thanks to the useless ANC’s incompetence driving people to come here and thus overwhelming the services here, to say nothing of the level of criminality. Thank heaven we have the DA governments here trying their damndest to keep our heads above the sewage.

  • John Smythe says:

    So, it seems that the CoCT isn’t as squeaky clean as they’d like us to believe.

  • Lil Mars says:

    Zero tolerance approach to litter is needed throughout the country. WC should lead the way.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Somebody should do a graphic of how Cape Town water works top to bottom and what it means for sustainability and the environment.

    The city imports thousands of cubic meters of water per day from the Boland mountains. It captures and converts to potable water a negligible amount of its own rainfall.

    It then proceeds to defecate in said Boland water and instead of treating it and reconverting it to potable water, dumps most of it in the Two Oceans. Why? Well darlings, one can’t have sewer treatment plants taking up and spoiling valuable land along Clifton coast or Constantia. Or even Strandfontein or Muizenberg or Blouberg, even though those matter less. And besides : it feeds the crayfish that we SO love with our Chardonnay.

    They capture almost nothing. They treat almost nothing. This game ends badly.

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