Caught again! Durban tries to hide crappy sea water quality results as holiday season beckons
The latest transparency blunder, which involves dangerously high E. coli levels, is not the first time the eThekwini Municipality has sought to conceal poor results.
Durban mayor Mxolisi Kaunda pledged to be transparent about the quality of sea water at city beaches over the holiday season, by publishing the results of all water quality tests conducted simultaneously by the City and an independent laboratory.
And the City lived up to that promise – until last week (24 November), when an inconvenient set of very poor results from both the municipality and Talbot Laboratories was deliberately withheld by the City’s communication team – apparently on the basis that they were “outdated” and “we would not want to cause alarm for no reason”.
At a media briefing on the Durban beachfront earlier this month, Kaunda further sought to reassure residents and holidaymakers that the vast majority of the city’s 23 designated bathing beaches were safe and open for bathing.
Under pressure from the local hospitality industry and other groups to address the unresolved issue of poor or patchy beach water quality in the coastal holiday city, Kaunda and senior eThekwini Municipality officials also held “frank and robust” discussions with the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry on 9 November.
They resolved to pursue several measures to keep the city’s beaches clean and safe, to “consolidate our marketing campaigns to reposition Durban as a destination of choice for visitors” and to also work to regain international Blue Flag beach status for some of the most popular beaches.
Writing in his mayoral blog on the City’s website on 6 October (see above screenshot), Kaunda stated:
“The fact that most of our bathing beaches are now open for swimming is testimony to this hard work by our technical teams. We want to assure residents and visitors that the City only opens the beaches that meet the quality standard for safety of bathing water.
“To this end, from 5 October, we have collaborated with independent laboratories such as Talbot and the Durban University of Technology to conduct water tests on the same spot, date and time and subsequently release them simultaneously (emphasis added).”
Yet last week, when Daily Maverick requested a copy of the latest joint test results from the City’s communications unit, we received this curious response three days later:
“We are still awaiting the latest results from the joint sampling. We will share them once we have them. The ones we have are outdated, and we would not want to cause alarm for no reason.”
Smelling a rat, we searched the internet and found the latest dual test results were published by Talbot on 23 November (two days after we asked eThekwini for the latest results).
Yet, despite the mayor’s pledge to publish them simultaneously, eThekwini failed to provide them on request, or to post them on the municipality’s website or social media accounts.
This is what the results show:
Every one of the six Durban central beaches (tested simultaneously by laboratory technicians at eThekwini and Talbot on 16 November) had E. coli levels way in excess of safe bathing limits for recreational contact.
According to Talbot’s rating scheme, an E. coli (sewage bacteria) rating between 0 and 250 units is considered “ideal”. Readings between 250 and 500 are “acceptable”, while readings above 500 are “critical” and therefore unsafe for bathing.
According to eThekwini’s own test results, the lowest E. coli reading was 1,968 units (North Beach) and the highest was 15,290 (Country Club beach).
These one-off results from six central beaches on a single day may not paint a fair picture of the city’s overall sea water quality, since test results can fluctuate widely from day to day – especially when heavy rains wash pollution from rivers and stormwater into the sea.
It is also worth noting that the same six beaches were rated “excellent” in similar tests by Talbot and eThekwini just seven days earlier.
And it should be recorded that several other beaches tested by the City laboratory just before the “alarming” results of 16 November generally had good-quality water. For example, three Umhlanga beaches tested on 13 November had E. coli levels ranging from a low of 20 units at Lighthouse Beach to a high of 309 units at Bronze beach (all within the limits).
On the central Durban beachfront, Suncoast and South beaches also had very low readings.
But if the City has committed itself to a policy of transparency to reassure the public that there is nothing to hide, why did City officials try to conceal the embarrassing results?
That question was also posed by the independent environmental monitoring group Adopt-a-River in a Facebook post on 24 November.
“Adopt-a-River” said it had sampled a number of sites with Talbot for nearly two years and was then requested by eThekwini to conduct joint sampling at six beach sites for comparative purposes ahead of the 2023 festive season.
Of the six beaches they sampled jointly, four had generally maintained a good record, until the 16 November tests.
“This set of samples was collected after rain. This always brings nasty things down… We have always advised the public to keep out of the sea for a day or two after rain. Especially if there are rivers close by. These results point to a greater ongoing issue and raise concerns over transparency.
“We sample together. We did not release together… You wanted transparency… Be transparent.”
The latest transparency blunder is not the first time eThekwini has sought to conceal poor results. In January 2022 (several months before the devastating April 2022 floods damaged the city’s wastewater treatment works and pump stations) City official Malcolm Canham went on television to reassure the public that Durban’s beaches were safe for swimming, when official test results showed unacceptable water quality.
So, Daily Maverick contacted senior City communications manager Gugu Sisilana to ask why her unit was withholding the latest dual test results?
The allegations that the City is hiding results are unwarranted and only seek to tarnish the image of the City ahead of the festive season for motives unknown to the City.
In a series of email exchanges, she denied that any results were being “hidden”.
“The results of the joint sampling were last taken on 16 November 2023. Since then, more water quality sampling tests have been conducted as these results are ever changing depending on various environmental factors.
“When your request came on Wednesday, 21 November 2023, we were informed by scientists that the results you were requesting were already outdated and were given the latest results published on our website dated 22 November 2023, which have been shared with you for ease of reference.”
(NOTE: These are the City’s own results for all 23 beaches – not the latest dual test results from Talbot and eThekwini. Also note that eThekwini is quite happy to include good test results from 16 November in this table, but not the poor results from the same day)
“We were then advised by the scientists that the next joint sampling is on Thursday, 23 November 2023. This morning we requested for those results but were informed by scientists that those results are still being processed and are not yet available.
“If the City’s intention was to hide water quality results, it would not have entered into a joint sampling agreement with independent scientists. It must be stressed that in all the beach water quality samples taken jointly by the municipality with independent scientists our results have always been comparable. This confirms the reliability and accuracy of the water quality test results the municipality has always been taking and publishing.
“Why do you not want to wait for the current results if your intention is not to cause unnecessary harm or panic?” she asked.
“All bathing beaches in the City are open and safe for bathing as per the latest test results. The allegations that the City is hiding results are unwarranted and only seek to tarnish the image of the City ahead of the festive season for motives unknown to the City. The latest beach water quality results are available on the municipal website www.durban.gov.za.”
But why, we repeated, were the inconvenient 16 November results not published by eThekwini, as mayor Kaunda pledged?
“The municipality would be doing the public a disservice if it were to publish the results of six or nine bathing beaches out of a total of 23,” Sisilana responded. “My understanding from discussions with scientists is that the published beach results are based on samples and tests conducted on all 23 bathing beaches and not just a select few… We do not have last weeks’ results because they are outdated and no longer relevant. Therefore, I will not lie to you because you want me to lie and confirm outdated reports.” DM