Duzi toilet time bomb

2008-01-31 00:00

This is a time bomb.

Stuart Knight, a local pathogenic bacteria control specialist, has spoken to The Witness on the dangers that he said are lurking in the murky depths of the uMsunduzi River.

The E.coli count of 29 000 measured in the river before the start of the Dusi Canoe Marathon was 3 000 higher than the 26 000 that is acceptable in a functioning septic tank.

Knight, who has worked in the field of toilet systems for the past 30 years, said he warned Msunduzi Municipality years ago to sort out the city’s pit latrine toilets and septic tanks to avert a major health disaster.

He said local people are dying from sewage-borne diseases like hepatitis and severe diarrhoea, but "it is always put down to simply natural causes". Cholera is also transmitted via raw sewage.

The extremely unhealthy situation that has developed around the presence of human waste in and around townships and surrounding rivers is having a devastating effect on HIV-positive people and on the elderly and young children, he said.

Knight said he was asked by Msunduzi to do an audit of waste materials flowing into the Duzi in 2005/2006. "I went through town from Vulindlela, the Edendale Valley and to most of the informal settlements looking at pit latrines, pit toilets and septic tanks."

What Knight found was a dire lack of knowledge from locals on how such toilet systems should be cared for. "Almost every pit toilet was being used as a rubbish dump with plastics, steel hard wood, carpets, you name it, being chucked into the holes."

He said that as a result, they became over-full and people stopped using them. Many just went to the toilet on the ground.

He found that many toilets and septic tanks are built over underground water courses that flow into the Duzi.

Knight was also concerned to find that those with septic tanks were medicating them with solutions like chlorhexidine gluconate and chloroxylenol, (found in Dettol and Savlon), which kill all the enzymes, worms and bacteria needed to break down the solid matter, and destroy the healthy pH system of the septic tank.

The result of all this, said Knight, is that when it rains, the toilets and tanks, overflow and the run-off ends up in the Duzi.

Knight said a massive drive is needed to educate people on how to use and care for their toilet systems and that existing ones should be rehabilitated and restored and have the correct bacteria reintroduced into them.

"Most of the systems are running at an acidic pH of nought — we need to get these back to six."

Knight said that instead of heeding his advice, the municipality went ahead and built 500 new toilets. "That was two years ago and they are all full now and unusable in many cases. The current situation with the Duzi now is their own fault."

Knight said he told the municipality that if there was a cyclone or heavy rain, they would end up with a septic tank in every river.

He said temporary measures like cleaning toilets out with "honey suckers" are pointless as they are full within a month again. "The problem will carry on exacerbating itself again and again, but if we rehabilitate the toilet systems, it would save millions of lives and clean up the Duzi."

Approached for comment, municipal manager Rob Haswell said the problem is not that simple. He said the contamination is caused by a combination of factors, including the age of pipes, the lack of toilets and adequate storm water drainage.

Msunduzi Municipality no longer employs a dedicated medical officer of health, but Haswell said they have a "highly qualified person" in the form of Dr Nomasonto Nkosi as an acting process manager in the health department.

Haswell referred The Witness to Phil Mashoko, manager for infrastructure, services and facilities for further comment, but Mashoko was unreachable yesterday.

stephs@witness.co.za

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