Opinionista Patrick Bond 6 December 2012

Beyond Durban’s dirty water and sanitation cesspools

Lies, damn lies and… stats on sewage? The rumour is not entirely true that Durban is a cesspit of undrinkable water, but that doesn’t mean the local sanitation system isn’t deep in the – well, you know. And if money is the issue, then perhaps the solution lies with those of us who are more, ahem, flush.

Chatter at this week’s World Toilet Summit at the International Convention Centre in Durban included some gossip we should quickly flush out – but not into the sea, where far too much of our poisonous liquid already flows.

First is the rumour, fed by media hysteria, that drinking Durban’s increasingly grey water is bad for us. As the city begins to mix recycled city sewage with river supply from the mercury-contaminated Inanda Dam (where signs warn against eating fish) and other E.coli-infected streams, will we end up as ill and thirsty as those unfortunate citizens of Carolina? 

There and in other Mpumalanga dorpies, Acid Mine Drainage and related toxic effluent from coal mining corporations continue unveiling incompetence and crony-capitalism within our national environment ministry, a feature also on display at this week’s COP18 climate summit in Doha, which resurrects last year’s disastrous ‘Durban Platform’ from the COP17. 

Between worsening climate change, declining air quality and widespread water pollution, it is tragic but true – as even government admits in obscure reports – that Apartheid’s ecology was better than freedom’s. To illustrate, at the very tip of government’s free-market, fast-melting iceberg, Cyril Ramaphosa’s coal company was let off the prosecutorial hook last month for operating without a water license. His political clout was simply overwhelming, according to a leading Pretoria bureaucrat cited by the Mail & Guardian.

As for Durban tap-water quality, no, I don’t think there’s any worry, and still have no qualms about ordering my restaurant water straight from the tap. There are greater hazards associated with drinking bottled water. Not only do petrochemical residues rub off inside your plastic bottle (see the free film http://www.storyofbottledwater.org for gory details).

The bottles also clog landfills and their petroleum inputs soil the air in South Durban, where Merebank children suffer the world’s worst recorded asthma rate, at Settlers Primary School. The Engen refinery and BP/Shell’s Sapref complex act like a massive pollution pincer on the kids’ young lungs. Last week, even the slobs at the US Environmental Protection Agency deemed BP – ‘Beyond Petroleum’ (hah) – such a filthy rogue that it may no longer bid for new oil leases there.

The second bit of malevolent gossip concerns the well-known water manager who runs Durban’s municipal system, Neil Macleod. Billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft founder Bill Gates blogged two years ago that Macleod “has been a leader in thinking through how to improve sanitation for the poor in Durban.”

But last month Macleod was charged with corruption by his subordinates (whom he was investigating for the same crime). This came just at the moment that former Durban city manager Mike Sutcliffe apparently intimidated his successor S’bu Sithole into out-of-court-settlement talks over corruption libel which may leave taxpayers shelling out millions to featherbed Sutcliffe’s ‘reputation’. 

Although the Manase Report into city corruption remains a state secret, in both the Macleod and Sutcliffe cases, I’m convinced that they are being unfairly maligned.

How, then, might we more fairly malign these men, not personally of course, but for society-corrupting, health-threatening, ecologically-destructive sanitation policies on their watch? 

The most obvious evidence is the city’s repeated embarrassment at reports of high E.coli and toxin levels in the rivers feeding the ocean, especially after rains, leading to the loss of our international Blue Flag status at the ten Durban beaches four years ago. This month is vital for attracting Gauteng tourists, so the excessive storms make it doubly hard for our hospitality industry.

Why does Durban’s ocean water become unswimmable after rains? The primary cause is Macleod’s persistent failure to address the vast sanitation backlog in more than 100 shack settlements, municipal services for which Sutcliffe refused to authorize because of their informal property-rights status. Most have only a few poorly- (or un-) maintained toilets, in some cases as few as one per 500 residents. 

As a result of loose excrement, E.coli flows into our streams at a rate far higher than the recommended ‘safe’ level of 100 parts per 100ml. The 2010 State of the Rivers Report found the E.coli count in the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road, up to 1,080,000. Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.”

Five years ago, Macleod predicted to Science magazine that by 2010, “everyone [would have] access to a proper toilet,” while in reality, hundreds of thousands do not, today. 

Some sanitation experts visiting Durban for the Toilet Summit may rebut that the world cannot afford 12-litre flushes for everyone, and that we must embrace some version of low-water toilets here. (I agree: bio-gas digesters could be a fine compromise.)

Yet community critics regularly tell us that Durban’s water-less ‘Urinary Diversion’ and ‘Ventilated Improved Pitlatrine’ strategies are failing, and if the municipality possessed a genuinely green consciousness, then middle- and upper-class areas would have such pilot projects – not just tens of thousands provided in the city’s low-income periphery. 

I flush a few times each day and pay a small premium: more than Durban’s poor can afford, but still not enough. Many readers of this column could cross-subsidise your low-income fellow residents, by paying more for the privileges of filling swimming pools and bathtubs, watering gardens, running washing machines and all the other liquid luxuries we enjoy.

If we paid more to deter hedonistic water consumption, and if Macleod adjusted tariffs downwards accordingly for poor people, then Durban would not be South Africa’s second stingiest city (after Pietermaritzburg), according to the Wits University Centre for Applied Legal Studies. Then better health and gender equity would result, and more funds could be raised for decent sanitation across the city and to repair sewage pipes whose cracks regularly infect our rivers and harbour. 

After so much White Elephant infrastructure was built for the 2010 World Cup across SA, no one can claim that construction capability or subsidised funding are lacking. What’s missing is political power by poor people; and what will continue to result is toilet-Apartheid. DM

* Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.

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