Our Burning Planet


Hopes for clean seawater rise after Durban agrees to (partial) takeover of overflowing sewage plants

Hopes for clean seawater rise after Durban agrees to (partial) takeover of overflowing sewage plants
Ethekwini mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, escorted by senior Metro Police officers and their assembled fleet of new patrol vehicles, arrives at the Durban beachfront on 29 November to welcome holidaymakers to the Durban beachfront. (Photo: Ethekwini Municipality)

The eThekwini Municipality has agreed to allow the uMngeni-uThukela Water Board to jointly manage the city’s biggest sewage treatment plants.

The prolonged flow of sewage in rivers leading to the Durban beachfront may start to ease over the next few weeks after the eThekwini Municipality agreed to (partly) hand over control of the city’s largest wastewater treatment plants to a state-owned water utility company.

The initial 12 month-contract provides for the Pietermaritzburg-based uMngeni-uThukela Water Board to assume joint responsibility for the operation and maintenance of the city’s biggest sewage treatment plants — a clear indictment of the city’s failure to remedy the situation on its own.

The exact terms of the contract have not been disclosed, but many Durban treatment plants have been discharging untreated or partially treated effluent into rivers and the Indian Ocean, largely due to infrastructure damage caused by the April 2022 floods, but also because of the prolonged neglect of several treatment plants which predates the flood damage.

The emergency repair plan, announced this week by the water utility’s chairperson, Professor Vusi Khuzwayo, and eThekwini Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda, will involve 10 local wastewater treatment works that collectively process nearly 90% of the city’s sewage and industrial effluent flows.

This includes the Northern Wastewater Treatment Works, which has been discharging poorly treated water into the uMngeni River for more than two years at a point roughly 2.5km upstream of the Blue Lagoon.

Significantly, uMngeni-uThukela will also be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Southern and Central treatment works (which discharge effluent directly into the sea via offshore pipelines) as well as the uMhlanga, KwaMashu, Phoenix, Amanzimtoti, uMbilo, Isipingo and uMhlatuzana treatment works.

seawater durban

While the latest water quality tests of seawater along the central Durban beachfront have been rated as ‘excellent’ by both Ethekwini and the independent Talbot laboratory group, the sewage pollution levels in the lower reaches of the Umngeni River remain off the charts – way in excess of the maximum safe recreation level of 500 E.coli units.
(Image: Supplied)

eThekwini officials promised to curb the flow of sewage into the uMngeni River from the Northern works just before the last Christmas holiday season, but a year later sewage levels in the lower reaches of the Umngeni River remain way above the maximum safe limit of 500 E. coli units — with recent levels still measuring in the millions in the vicinity of the uMngeni Bird Park.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Caught again! Durban tries to hide crappy sea water quality results as holiday season beckons

However, according to a joint statement issued this week by Khuzwayo and Kaunda, the Pietermaritzburg-based regional water utility company formally took over operations of the 10 plants on 15 November.

“We are happy to report that, to date, uMngeni-uThukela Water has completed a conditional assessment of the wastewater infrastructure in the 10 wastewater works and is implementing an urgent programme to restore compliance going into the festive season.

“We have dispatched technical teams from both uMngeni-uThukela Water and eThekwini that have already started working together on identified projects to improve compliance. The delivery of necessary chemicals, integration of monitoring and laboratory analyses is expected to be completed by Friday [1 December].”

The compliance levels from the 10 wastewater works were expected to “start improving by the first week of December”, they said — although an indication of the scale of the problems was evident from Khuzwayo’s statement that the initial 12-month contract would probably have to be extended for up to three years.

sewage pollution durban

Adopt-a-River founder and pollution monitor Janet Simpkins surveys sewage pollution along the banks of the Umngeni River in August 2022. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

The projects that have been prioritised include the “rehabilitation and putting back into operation of the uMhlanga wastewater works, which last operated before the 2022 floods”.

It would also include the rehabilitation and recommissioning of the Northern works; fixing a major effluent pipeline leading to the uMhlathuzana wastewater works; “reseeding” the Phoenix works and the rehabilitation of the KwaMashu, uMbilo, Isipingo, Amanzimtoti, Central and Southern wastewater works.

However, the full implications of the new arrangement remain unclear.

Janet Simpkins, founder of the Adopt-a-River group that has been monitoring sewage levels along the Durban beachfront and its feeder rivers for two years, said she was “cautiously optimistic — but time will tell.

“I think this agreement is a recognition that the city needs help to resolve this issue, and we will continue to monitor water quality,” she said.

durban sewage

An aerial view of Durban’s Northern wastewater treatment plant. (Photo: Shawn Herbst)

However, a local water engineering expert was more cautious and declined to comment until the full terms of the agreement were disclosed.

Responding to a question from Daily Maverick on whether the new contract could lead to higher rates or surcharges, uMngeni-uThukela chief financial officer Thami Mkhwanazi indicated that the new contract provided for a “costs plus 4%” arrangement for the utility company, which would be providing the services of additional engineering expertise.

“We do not see a big spike for [Durban] residents,” he said.

Meanwhile, the latest beach water quality tests suggest that the majority of the city’s 23 bathing beaches are currently safe for swimming, although there was a significant hiccup after heavy rains earlier this month — resulting in sewage pollution readings at six central beaches being way above the limits — in some cases more than 30 times higher than regulated recreational standards.

Speaking at a “state of readiness” ceremony on the Durban beachfront on Wednesday, Mayor Kaunda reiterated the city’s commitment to continue its partnership with the Adopt-a-River group and the independent Talbot Laboratories group.

This involves joint testing of seawater quality by the eThekwini Municipality and Talbot laboratory staff.

“We are pleased that the water quality results were comparable and reflected that our water was safe for swimming. The joint sampling is to enable credible comparison of results and to ensure transparency and public safety,” he said. DM

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Denise Smit says:

    What about the people living upriver where the pollution takes place. They do not have the dilution of the microbes that the vast sea and tides provide

  • Derek Jones says:

    This might be the only thing that idiot Donald got right… “Africa has shit-hole nations.”
    Durban is a prime example.

  • Bob Carter says:

    Donald living rent-free in your head Derek?

  • Jennifer D says:

    We are paying government and municipal workers more than ever. They are unqualified, uncaring, entitled and incompetent as an entire group. Why are they unable to do even simple jobs competently? That’s the fundamental question – because if they don’t start working at some point, this country will be beyond salvation.

  • Alex Malamatas says:

    Let conscientious sanity prevail , may the authorities do the right thing, people are remembered fondly for the good they did not the corrupt unethical shenanigans that a lot of politicians are today, remember you are in a position of power and that power carries a lot of responsibility, be righteous and your reward will be great, clean up this city of Durban and especially the beaches because it is enjoyed by all people rich and poor big and small, tourists will flock to Durban employment will be created and your coffers will remain full. Leave a legacy of beauty no evil.


    What are all the patrol cars doing at the beach front? How many policemen are strolling around instead of catching criminals?
    More wasted resources!

    • Janet Sully says:

      All to show the potential tourists that the police are front & centre with brand new cars. Whether they are used to patrol and keep the city safe is another question.

  • Alan Watkins says:

    I think these Christmas holidays will be make or break for Ethekwini/Durban. And if its break there will be ructions, not riots, followed by the ANC being voted out. Actually, the ANC will most likely be voted out even if the new arrangement holds for the holidays.

  • William Dorrington says:

    Is Twiggy whose walking behind Kaunda also a councilor? No wasted resource there.

  • Kenneth Nesbitt says:

    It appears that there are no physical health standards of police as seen from the appearance of the 2nd police lady on the left of the picture! Similarly the lady to the right and behind the mayor appears extremely overweight and appears to have a problem walking! What is her position in the municipality? Can these be able to carry out a working function!!

  • Dragon Slayer says:

    Time will tell – I am not holding my breath. The history of eThekwini with regard to outsourcing is more about bypassing regulations than actual productivity. Invariably opportunistic and corrupt companies established with token BEE appointees of the ANC cabals get the contracts. – Don’t forget Durban Solid Waste et al

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