Dusi in danger

2008-01-05 00:00

Dangerously high levels of bacteria from sewage flowing into the Umsunduzi River could see Pietermaritzburg lose the Hansa Powerade Dusi Marathon. Yesterday, the Natal Canoe Club put up signs at Camps Drift warning paddlers to steer clear of the Umsunduzi.

Ray de Vries, spokesman for the race organisers, said a crisis meeting will be held today to decide on an alternative start and to redesign the route if levels of E.coli bacteria, derived from human faeces, around Camps Drift continue to pose a health risk to the 2 000-plus paddlers and the 1 000 volunteer supporters, rescue divers and emergency personnel involved.

The Dusi, which begins in 13 days’ time, is the world’s largest canoe marathon and has drawn record national and international entries this year.

“Tomorrow we will redesign the start so we can move it at a moment’s notice. We can’t afford not to have a plan B and have everyone seriously ill. If this step is taken, it will be a major blow to the event and sports tourism in this province,” De Vries said.

“It would be sad to move the start of the race out of Pietermaritzburg, but it would be irresponsible of us as the organisers to put the health of any paddler at risk.”

Local paddlers said they will heed the warnings. Multiple winner Ant Stott said he will not get into the water as a mild infection could cost him four days and a major one a week in hospital.

Symptoms of E.coli infection are bloody diarrhoea, dehydration and cramping, while complications include anaemia and kidney failure.

According to De Vries, E.coli levels in the river were carefully monitored throughout December. Measurements on December 27 showed counts above the start averaged 20 000 per 100 ml.

This climbed to 26 000 at Camps Drift. An international health-risk assessment indicates that levels of 130 and below mean excellent water quality, 130 to 150 parts per 100 ml are good and 500 to 2 000 are acceptable.

However, 2 000 to 6 000 parts per 100 ml indicate “moderate faecal contamination”, 6 000 to 10 000 is regarded as “poor status, significantly contaminated” and 10 000 or more is defined as “very poor quality, health risk high”.

Levels climbed from 800 to 21 000 between the end of November and the end of December at the measurement point below kwaPata and from 900 to 21 000 at Caluza Bridge.

Camps Drift’s count rose from 1 720 on December 12 to 26 000 in two weeks.

Shami Harichunder, spokesman for Umgeni Water, which is responsible for sampling, said the December 27 results were “not good”, but measurements on January 2 and 3 showed that water quality has improved significantly and would continue to. At this point, however, some pollutants remain.

He said the December measurements were taken directly after heavy rains, which seriously affects water quality in the river.

Lin Gravelet-Blondin, deputy director of water quality management at the department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) KZN, said heavy rains flush more sewage into rivers.

Gravelet-Blondin admitted that a report shows that E.coli counts at crucial sites were above 10 000, which “rang alarm bells”.

However, yesterday’s results indicate the situation has “greatly improved” at Camps Drift Bridge, with counts at around 2 600 parts. This is considered good paddling water, he said.

Sources told Weekend Witness that the culprit is the local municipality, which was given R10 million to upgrade and repair the sewage works, but has not done so.

Lin Gravelet-Blondin said DWAF has contacted the local authority for an explanation for the high E.coli counts.

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