On the brink of a disaster?

2008-10-08 00:00

Water tests by the Duzi-Umngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) reveal that the springs that cater for the water needs of over 900 people in the informal settlement of Thokoza, on the outskirts of Howick, are contaminated. While 100 E. coli per 100 ml of water is deemed to be the threshold for safe drinking water, the upper spring currently registers 4 838 E. coli/100ml, having recorded as much as 24 190 on occasion. The situation has deteriorated to such a degree that the mayor of uMngeni Municipality was requested to supply a fresh water tanker as a matter of urgency. While there is a water standpipe the majority of residents, particularly the elderly, the frail and the sick, continue to use the springs rather than cart heavy water containers over long distances.

After three successive months of highlighting Siphumelele-Thokoza residents’ concerns about sewage flowing past their homes and into the Umgeni River, little has been remedied. uMgungundlovu District Municipality is understood to have taken over the water and sanitation function over two years ago, yet has no offices, no staff and no organisational structure in uMngeni. In its absence, uMngeni is left to struggle on the best it can with limited capital and human resources to attend to something it no longer deems to be its responsibility.

As uMngeni’s sanitation and water services break down, uMgungundlovu’s paralysis is resulting in a greater and greater health risk to residents. And as environmentalists have shown, with fish and river organisms dying, the river from which the municipality gets its name is under threat too.

Two elderly residents remember when the stream was pure spring water, but that was years ago. Today it is raw sewage. The latest water test by Duct reveals an E. coli level of 6,49 million per 100 ml at the head of the valley, endangering the lives of about 2 000 men, women and children. Hundreds of domestic animals — dogs, cats, goats, cattle, chickens, ducks and geese — feed and drink off the sewage running through the community, while children play in the water none the wiser. Unbeknown to the women at the confluence of the spruit, where the sewage flows into the river at 1,3 million E. coli per 100 ml, they have been washing their clothes, towels and bed linen in almost unadulterated human excrement.

The river here used to be popular with swimmers and tubers. Now, along with the discharge from Siphumelele and the Howick treatment works, three sewage pumps along the Umgeni at York Road, Prospect Road and Main Road above the Howick bridge, have been tripping, dumping untreated waste into the river system.

At the last technical cluster portfolio meeting on October 1, it was resolved that the uMngeni Municipality should urgently do everything possible to commit to a specific plan of action with the uMgungundlovu District to resolve the water and sanitation crisis before lives and the environment are lost. It is reported to have been a lesser situation than this in the Eastern Cape that resulted in the deaths of 114 babies from diarrhoea related to a tragic combination of contaminated water and poverty conditions that were totally avoidable.

• Tim Lindsay-White is an uMngeni Municipality DA councillor.

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