A river in crisis

2008-02-15 00:00

“Dusi 2008 has come and gone. The organisation was great, … records were broken and with Michael Mbanjwa winning his first Dusi and Martin Dreyer his seventh, history was made. Pity about the bugs ...” So writes Dave Still, chairman of Duct (Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust), on the organisation’s website.

The “bugs” in the Umsunduzi river not only made local and national news, they also made many of the paddlers in the canoe marathon sick with “Dusi guts” — diarrhoea and/or vomiting. Duct conducted a survey among competitors which found that 45% of the Dusi 2008 participants became ill. The Dusi organising committee threatened to move the start of the race, and, if necessary, to cancel it. It also expressed concern that international competitors might not return to participate in future events.

“Dusi guts”, however, is not a new phenomenon. According to Still, a paddler himself, canoeists have experienced it for 30 to 40 years and the water quality during the 2006 marathon was even worse. On the first day of that race, the E.coli readings were over 50 000 counts per 100 ml (a “tolerable” or “moderately low” count is 10 000 to 20 000).

The issue of bugs in the river is much broader and more serious than the future of the canoe marathon. The state of rivers is a vital indicator of the health of the catchment area around them and how the land is being used. “If a river is stressed, it means that the whole ecological system is stressed,” says Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife aquatic scientist Nick Rivers-Moore.

The Witness has carried allegations that local people are dying of sewage-borne diseases such as hepatitis and severe diarrhoea (The Witness, February 1). The Witness contacted the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health about the effect that E.coli levels in the river have on the health of communities that live on its banks. However, the department had not responded at the time of going to press.

Why has this happened?

If the river has been polluted enough to make paddlers sick for years, we have to ask why this has been allowed to happen and what must be done to clean up the Duzi.

According to Still, river pollution has been allowed to deteriorate to its current levels because the health of rivers is not an issue of public concern. On the Duct website he writes: “When the lights go out, everyone notices. If your water supply failed you would certainly have something to say about it. A failure of the sewerage system, on the other hand, can go on for years or even decades without anyone caring, because who knows or cares if the river is chronically polluted?”

Rivers-Moore believes the state of local rivers is also the result of “the gap between science and management”. “Scientists may know why things happen and what to do about them, but their scientific knowledge needs to be mainstreamed — made available to people in management and put into practice.”

Judging by the process required to gather information about this issue, it seems as though no single government authority or organisation is responsible for river management. It falls between two bodies: the Department of Land Affairs and the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (Dwaf). The process becomes even more complex when it gets down to the local level.

What causes the pollution?

The Duzi suffers three main types of pollution: solid waste, faecal waste or sewage, and industrial pollution. E.coli from faecal pollution are the bugs that make Dusi paddlers ill. Regular water quality testing shows that pollution enters the Duzi inside the city’s municipal boundaries where an estimated 600 000 people live. The section of the river affected stretches from Edendale below Henley Dam to beyond the Darvill waste water plant on New England Road.

According to river scientist and environmental consultant Dr Mark Graham, faecal pollution is the biggest and most complex problem, and is tied in with solid waste. “Storm water drains and sewers become blocked because communities use them as rubbish dumps. Many sewers are broken and need repair. Damaged pipes can obviously let raw sewage out and storm water in. Unscrupulous property developers and poorly informed members of the public also illegally discharge storm water into the sewers rather than storm-water drains. Pressure build-up can make sewers overflow, sometimes discharging raw sewage into the rivers and streams.

“The situation is exacerbated during storms, which is what happened during the Dusi marathon. Under extreme conditions the Darvill sewage works cannot cope with the large volumes of storm water that find their way into the sewers. The plant is unable to put this mix of storm and waste water through the system and clean it properly. Instead, it is forced to treat the sewage with large quantities of chlorine and pump it directly into the river. What happens when there is a storm is like expecting the R103 to carry the traffic that uses the N3 during peak holiday season.”

What needs to be done?

Sorting out the faecal and solid waste problems requires action across a broad front, with the Msunduzi Municipality taking the lead role. The major requirements are:

• provision of solid waste and sewage services and infrastructure supported by consumer education;

• monitoring, replacement, repair and maintenance of sewers;

• replacement, repair and maintenance of equipment in the municipal water and sanitation department;

• more skilled staff; and

• inspection of new property developments and enforcement of municipal building by-laws on storm and waste water management.

Dealing with the industrial pollution requires a similar effort by the municipality to monitor and control industries that illegally discharge industrial waste into the river and Dwaf to prosecute offenders.

Is it too late?

Still believes that it is not too late to clean up the rivers and that the pollution is reversible. However, he says, “...we should be realistic. While we can hope for better [water] quality [for the Dusi] next year, the work will take several years.”

Rivers-Moore also says that it will take more than scientific and management intervention to reverse river pollution. “We need people to change their behaviour and values. The long-term safety of rivers is not secure until people recognise the truth of Chief Seattle’s words that ‘all things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.’ ”

River management

• Msunduze Catchment Management Forum — representative body that manages water resources, no statutory role or executive power.

• Dwaf — the regulating authority responsible for national water resources including water quality.

• Umgeni Water — a water ­services provider that supplies bulk water to the municipality, owns and manages Darvill sewage works and tests water quality in the rivers.

• Msunduzi Municipality — water supply authority responsible for waste water and storm water management (enforcement of building by-laws, inspection, maintenance and repair of ­sewers).

What is the municipality doing?

According to municipal strategic executive manager: infrastructure services and facilities ­Philemon Mashoko, the Msunduzi Municipality is trying to help clean up the Duzi by sorting out the storm and waste water systems.

To address the poor state of the city’s sewers, Mashoko says, “We have embarked on a condition assessment of the sewerage network through a programme funded by Municipal Infrastructure Grant funding (MIG). We have completed the city centre, part of Sobantu and Imbali and are continuing in other outstanding areas. Simultaneously, we are replacing and upgrading the aged sewer pipes that have been identified by the assessment programme.

“We are replacing pipes in the city ­centre and Northdale areas. This on-going project will ensure the replacement and upgrading of all aged sewer pipes.”

The municipality is also extending sanitation services to unserviced areas. “We have a Ventilated Improved Pit latrine (VIP) programme in the rural areas of Vulindlela and part of Edendale. It is installing on average 3 000 VIPs per annum, with an annual target of 5 000 in 2007/08. This ensures provision of sanitation services to all those areas without a sewerage network. We have an on-going programme of extending the sewer pipes in parts of Edendale [Azalea, Unit H] and the Woodlands area. We are also in the process of designing the upgrading of the on-site sanitation to waterborne sanitation in areas like Ambleton.”

Key to the maintenance of the city’s sewers are the staff, ­vehicles and equipment of the Water and Sanitation Sub-unit. The municipal website states that there are 1 450 kilometres of sewerage pipeline and 32 pump stations. To inspect this system, the section has four sewer inspectors. The Duct website notes that the section had eight inspectors 10 years ago.

An additonal inspector is being employed, Mashoko says, and other posts have also been advertised and are in the process of being filled. “The issue of vehicles is being considered at corporate level since it is an organisation-wide challenge. The department in charge of fleet management is looking into the matter. Currently, shortages of vehicles in any services within the municipality are complemented by hiring appropriate vehicles.”

Municipal building inspectors are responsible for inspecting properties to ensure proper waste water management. The municipality has nine and has advertised for another inspector and an assistant chief building inspector. Mashoko says, “We intend to increase the number of building inspectors because of economic activity in the city. By increasing the number of inspectors we hope to improve our coverage in the municipal area.”

On the subject of properties that illegally route storm water into the sewer system, Mashoko says, “We need the help of our communities. It is difficult for the municipality to uncover certain activities without residents’ help. We therefore appeal to our residents to report any illegal structures, water and sewer connections to our building inspectorate section. We are also in the process of reviewing all old approved building plans in the hope of identifying any anomalies that could have led to illegal ­connections.”

To report illegal building structures, contact the building inspectorate at 033 392 2082/2163 (8 am to 5 pm). To report illegal water or sewer connections, phone the Water Sub-unit at 0800 00 1868 (24 hours).

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