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COASTAL CONCERNS

It’s code red on the water quality of beaches around Cape Town ahead of peak holiday season

It’s code red on the water quality of beaches around Cape Town ahead of peak holiday season
Beach-goers at Muizenberg Beach on 1 January 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Brenton Geach / Gallo Images)

Data from the City of Cape Town’s website has shown continuously ‘poor’ water quality at a number of the city’s most popular beaches.

The water quality at a number of Cape Town’s beaches and tidal pools –including Fish Hoek beach, Strandfontein beach, Hout Bay beach and both Camps Bay tidal pools – is poor, according to the city’s water quality review.  

The beaches have been labelled in red in the review, indicating a health risk and a high bacteria count, with Central False Bay, Lagoon beach (Milnerton), Macassar to Gordon’s Bay, and Three Anchor Bay beach considered to have chronic water quality problems. 

The city samples coastal waters at 99 sites twice a month across the coastlines, and the results from each area are categorised as excellent, good, sufficient or poor.

Deputy Mayor and Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Eddie Andrews, sought to allay rising fears that the city’s coastal water quality is not as safe as previously thought, announcing: “Cape Town’s most popular beaches display excellent water quality results ahead of the festive season. 

“We are thrilled to announce that the results for 147 water quality samples show excellent water quality across Cape Town’s key recreational nodes or beaches. A full 95% of water samples are well below the single sample standard of 180 enterococci per 100ml. This confirms water quality is not just good, but excellent by global standards across our popular beaches,” he said.

This was based on an independent analysis of water samples taken over the past seven weeks, the latest on 15 November 2023, Andrews said. 

Yet the results as of 8 November – the latest water quality data available on the city’s water quality dashboard – show concerning water quality data at some of these beaches and tidal pools.

The city says the bad results from the review are almost always due to a localised issue at the sampling site. For example, at Camps Bay Tidal Pool A, the sampling point is next to a sewage pump station outlet, which is part of the ablution building in the middle of the tidal pool. Almost certainly, any poor result here will be caused by leaks or failures of the pump station and ablution facility, it says. 

The results come against the background of increasingly constrained sewer systems in Cape Town, which have caused sewage spills and resultant beach closures, as well as condemnation of the city’s pumping of sewage into the ocean through its three marine outfalls or pipelines, located 1.5km offshore in Green Point, Camps Bay and Hout Bay.

There have been calls for alternative solutions to dispose of the sewage. A study published in December 2022 found that the outfalls affected marine-protected areas in Camps Bay. 

Emeritus Professor Leslie Petrik of the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape warned that the “red labelled” beaches presented a significant health risk to people. 

Petrik cautioned that the results were often posted by the city long after a pollution event and said more frequent water quality testing and publishing was needed.   

“Given the parlous state of our wastewater treatment plants and the huge volumes of untreated and partially treated sewage being continuously discharged into the sea and into surf zones by [the City of Cape Town], the coastline is continuously contaminated with both bacteria and chemicals these days,” Petrik said. 

Dr Jo Barnes, a senior lecturer emeritus at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Global Health, said posting updated notices about water quality at beaches would damage the city’s image as a popular tourist destination, which was why its efforts at informing the public were often half-hearted. 

Caroline Marx, director of NPO Rethink the Stink and environmental head of the Milnerton Central Residents Association, said: “The causes of the high pollution levels need to be resolved so that most beaches are zoned green as they were years ago. Signs don’t resolve the problem – they are also an attempt to transfer the risk from the city to the public. This is unfair, when the city is mandated to manage sewage in such a way that it does not pose a public health risk.”

Camps Bay

There has been major controversy about the water quality and Blue Flag status of Camps Bay beach. The city’s latest water quality reports classify Camps Bay tidal pools A and B as “poor”; yet, Camps Bay beach is classified as “good” despite its close proximity. 

The beach was also one of eight in Cape Town that were recently awarded Blue Flag status by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) for meeting stringent criteria related to water quality, environmental management and safety services.

Petrik said there were serious questions about the water quality at Camps Bay beach because of frequent sewage spills and other pollutants being discharged at the beach.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How safe are South Africa’s popular holiday beaches ahead of the festive season?

Barnes explained that only the top half of Camps Bay beach is classified as having good water quality, while the half closest to Maiden’s Cove is decidedly poor at times – likely as a result of its proximity to the Camps Bay marine outfall where sewage is discharged.

However, the city said that the calculations for its water quality data reports were very rigorous and just a few poor individual results could be influential in the overall categorisation of an area as poor. 

A city spokesperson explained this using the Camps Bay tidal pool B data, which is taken from a sampling site inside the tidal pool alongside the southwestern wall. The complete enterococci data set (bacteria per 100ml) for this site over a five-year period — from Wednesday, 16 November 2016 to Wednesday, 24 November 2021 — shows that out of 122 data points a total of only 6–8% was considered high (exceeding 180 bacteria/100ml), and these were considered as one-off readings.

Yet these eight elevated readings influence the outcome, so the interpretation and analysis of coastal water quality data has to be done carefully. The city spokesperson said that based on 122 samples, more than 90% of the time the water quality in the tidal pool was considered excellent and posed little risk to users.

In response to these concerns, Wessa CEO Helena Atkinson and Dr Gary Koekemoer, chair of Wessa’s Algoa branch, said the Blue Flag criteria were clear: only beaches that have shown a historical sampling of 20 “excellent” results, 31 days apart, can qualify for Blue Flag status. 

Deputy Mayor Andrews urged the public not to fall for “baseless misinformation about our coastal water quality, especially where these allegations are not backed up by scientific evidence, namely enterococci data from more than just one sample, over a period of time, at a specific beach”.

He added that visitors to Cape Town beaches could be confident that Coastal Water Quality guidelines were being met and monitored on an ongoing basis. 

Andrews, however, did warn that Cape Town had areas where land-based pollution impacted on the shoreline more regularly and might cause more variable results. Areas where this was a problem included Diep River estuary mouth and adjacent Lagoon beach; Disa River mouth in Hout Bay; Else River mouth in Glencairn; Silvermine River mouth in Clovelly; and Gordon’s Bay River. 

These issues were slowly but steadily being addressed through the City of Cape Town’s Mayoral Priority Programme, which focuses on improving inland water quality, and driving record infrastructure investment in water and sanitation services.

Marine outfalls

Petrik and Barnes, who have been raising the alarm for years, say the untreated sewage discharged from the marine outfalls at Hout Bay, Green Point and Camps Bay has a detrimental effect on the water quality in these areas, endangering marine life, human health and the tourism industry. They point out that the untreated sewage from the marine outfalls returns to bays and shorelines instead of being harmlessly dispersed at sea.

Their findings have been corroborated by kayakers and surfers who have found themselves paddling in raw sewage, with used sanitary pads and condoms floating in the water.

However, the city said that its environmental summary reports for each outfall, which were written by a team of marine experts using seven years’ worth of data, had determined that none of the three outfalls caused National Coastal Water Quality Guidelines to be exceeded at any point on the shoreline. 

Regarding the impact of marine outfalls on water quality in Hout Bay, Green Point and Camps Bay, a city spokesperson said:

  • Camps Bay and Glen beaches both have excellent water quality, and Camps Bay has retained Blue Flag status for more than 10 years;
  • Hout Bay is affected by discharge from the Disa River, which carries high levels of pollution; and
  • Green Point has multiple sources of impacts from the shoreline via stormwater drains. Three Anchor Bay is a perfect example of illegal discharges via the stormwater drain that are daily and ongoing.

ActionSA provincial chairperson Michelle Wasserman paddled out in a kayak to the Green Point outfall and took photos of the raw sewage drifting on top of the water.

“The city claimed that the outfalls safely disperse wastewater deep underwater, far from the seashore, but there is nothing safe about the pathogen- and chemical-laden untreated sewage which finds its way back to the bays and shores where residents and tourists unsuspectingly swim, surf and kayak, and where children dig in the ‘swash zones’,” she said. 

Public participation

On Tuesday, 21 November, a second round of public participation concluded with members of the scientific community, activists, opposition parties and civil society objecting to the marine outfalls and the impact of discharging sewage into the ocean.

These same groups unsuccessfully challenged the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment’s decision to grant the City of Cape Town coastal water discharge permits for the outfalls in 2015.

This time, they hope their comments will be considered and that the city will not be permitted to pump sewage into the ocean before it has been treated to a tertiary level, a process that removes pathogens and chemicals that are harmful to human and marine life. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA coastal concerns

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • COLIN GRUNDLINGH says:

    At face value this seems no better than Durban and CT never had the devastating floods so what is the COCT going to do?

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    I find it fascinating that you headline this article “It’s code red on the water quality of beaches around Cape Town ahead of peak holiday season” when, in fact, reading the article properly, nothing can be further from the truth. There are concerns at selected beaches, but not even close to the inference of the headline of all Cape Town beaches being at risk. Your pre-occupation with trying to make Cape Town look bad is irritating when so many other major cities in this country are in DIRE straits.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Strange thatthe experts are largely retired academics!

  • David Walker says:

    One of the biggest challenges regarding water quality in Cape Town is loadshedding. The impacts of waste water pumps going offline can be devastating as sewage backs up and overflows into the stormwater system, and into rivers and ultimately, the sea. It is very difficult and expensive to provide generators for the thousands of pump stations across the city. So we will have ongoing water quality issues until we have developed sufficient alternative electricity supplies.

  • Mkili Muzenha says:

    I blame the corrupt ANC🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣🤣

    Can I hear that song

  • David Pennington says:

    So, swim with a toilet roll around your neck, problem sorted

  • Rod Gush says:

    It is very disappointing to see the Daily Maverick stooping to the level of “gutter journalism” with the use of sensationalist headlines like “It’s code red on the water quality of beaches around Cape Town ahead of peak holiday season”. This not factual. Yes – there are problems at SOME beaches and the COCT deserves to be taken to task for their ongoing inability to deal with the problem. But Daily Maverick – please raise your standards. Headlines of this nature are unbecoming of a publication like yours.

    • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

      Your prejudice and lack of objectivity gets you to be blind to the truth. The worst thing that you do is to attack the messenger without having any reasons. This is the problem of people who can only see certain people who are to blame. Closet racists do not go around with racist written all over them but you can always see them by saying it cannot be Cape Town. We must call these closet racists out.

      • Johann Olivier says:

        Where is the racism in this? Everything is not racism. This is about the quality of the ocean for all mankind. My objection to those objecting is their true reason for objecting. I fear that they may have interests beyond the quality of the ocean water. I’d venture to say they have some real interest in tourism. Of course, the latter is vital to the economy of the Cape, but pretending all is well when it is not, is a sure way to destroy the brand.

      • Rod Gush says:

        Oh dear! Out comes the racist card. Please re-read my post. I did not defend the COCT, on the contrary, I criticised them; my words being “the COCT deserves to be taken to task for their ongoing inability to deal with the problem”. In the same vein the Daily Maverick deserves the criticism I levelled at them.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Pay Back The Moneeeeeyyyyyyyy

  • Eva B says:

    My husband and I got seriously ill from what we believe was swimming in Camps Bay Tidal pool on November 13th to the extent that we had to go and get treatment. We do not live in CPT, but visit often. However, this has left a dent on the usually great time. The city should take this seriously in order to avoid illness amongst the population and tourism affected.

  • Peter Walsh says:

    I read with interest the various comments here, calling into question the Daily Mavericks motivation and journalistic abilities, along with comments about my colleagues at ReThinkTheStink Leslie Petrik and Caroline Marx that are ill informed at best.

    If you wish to challenge the inputs of these ladies which are well researched, based on facts including the CoCT own test results, at least argue the facts. Anything else should be seen for what it is.

  • Human Being says:

    Thanks Kristin for this report.We note that the date of the report of the various swimming places is the 8th Nov 2023.I together with thousands of other bathers would very much appreciate a more relevant following up, if it is at all possible.Could you or the Council please advise us with an up to date report on a daily basis? if this is at all possible? this could prevent thousands of holiday makers from being infected and spoiling our annual Christmas Holiday.

  • Greeff Kotzé says:

    Why are there so many “Too Few Data” entries in the 2022 column — and no 2023 column at all? How long does this data take to compile, realistically? What is the 365 day rolling period, then? Mid-2021 to mid-2022? All the TFDs suggest that it cannot be later than that.

    Possible alternative explanation: The rolling 365 days column is mostly based on 2023, and there is a large gap in the data during 2022 — if so, why?

  • AJ Mnyandu says:

    Big ups to the comments calling out the hypocrisy in some of the negative responses garnered by this article. Criticism should be metered out to every political party, even if it is toward a party one supports. I’m not shocked to see the same camp that typically attacks the ANC (and mostly for the right reasons) defend failures that can be attributed to the DA. Only when it’s an attack on a Cape Town led DA will the (and Cunningham Ngcukana said this nicely) closet racists call out things like the way the article was written or the way the article’s headline was worded, when this is the same standard of writing which DM used to talk about ANC failures. Some of you go as far as dishing out unverifiable and incorrect data under the guise of fact-checking. Lol some of y’all are a joke.

  • Peter Pallister says:

    What is wrong with these people, the ocean is not a dumping ground for untreated effluent of chemicals, the norm. should be that all swimming areas be low risk, the fish and shellfish that we eat should be uncontaminated and hold no risk to the people that eat it. If Cape Town cannot spend money on repairs / building new plant then they must request money from the Government. I know first hand that they are not spending money on repairs or repair on the cheap and this equipment does not last. So stop with the excuses and sort out this problem, and this goes for all the municipalities in the country both inland and coastal, you are playing with the health and wellbeing of the people.

  • A Schroed says:

    You are swimming amidst toilet paper and tampons at so many Cape Town beaches with “good” or “excellent” ratings here. The color of the Ocean has changed from ~5 years ago in many spots. That we don’t know the volume of sewage pumped into the Ocean daily is a red flag.

    I would also like to understand the Excellent areas described as Does that imply 2.9 of every 100 swimmers could still get sick? Doesn’t seem excellent to me.

  • Johann Hanekom says:

    Why does the DA boast about its service delivery if it follows the same route as the ANC in Durban?

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

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