Duzi contamination

2008-01-12 00:00

The imminent Dusi Canoe Marathon both highlights and clouds the issue of E.coli contamination of the Umsunduzi River. Were the famous race not due to start within days, the pollution level of the water might not have attracted the public attention that it has done. On the other hand, the crux of the matter is not whether the river is currently safe for paddlers but whether it presents an ongoing health hazard for the general public, especially those who live along its banks.

The matter has several disturbing features. One is the cageyness of the authorities about the contamination levels. When the Weekend Witness first publicised the looming threat to the canoe race, the level above the start had averaged 20 000 parts per 100 ml in late December. To put that in perspective, a count of 6 000 to 10 000 per 100 ml is classified as “significantly contaminated”; above 10 000 represents a high health risk.

Since then the level has reportedly dropped, possibly to within acceptable levels for the race organisation, but officialdom has declined to disclose exact measurements. Instead, statements are being issued in terms of health risk classifications, ostensibly on the grounds that the ordinary public might misunderstand and misinterpret the actual figures. This is hardly a convincing reason for holding back this technically important information, especially if (as now seems to be the policy) it is going to be left to the paddlers’ own judgment whether to venture onto the water or not.

Again, however, more than the risk to the canoeists, it is the risk to the general public that really matters. Another worrisome consideration is that while the pollution in the river must have many and often obscure sources, one recent major discharge of waste could and should have been prevented. Not only are sewage and waste disposal systems inadequate and poorly maintained, but the day-to-day enforcement and policing of control measures is woefully ineffectual. With the influx of stormwater into the Msunduzi Municipality’s sewage system one of the possible contributors to the problem, the warning is out that another heavy rainfall could push contamination levels up again.

As with the growing numbers of potholes on the roads, bureaucracy’s response seems to be to erect warning signs rather than repair the damage, although in this instance it seems that neither the municipal council nor the Umgeni Water authority have bothered even with that, leaving it to the canoe race organisers to warn off their own participants. In fact, the failure of these two authorities either to identify the problem timeously or to inform and warn the public about it is one of the most shameful aspects of the whole affair.

It would profit the local authorities to look downstream to the coast, and the massive loss of fish in Durban’s harbour. There, too, inadequate control of sewage seems to have been a contributory factor, but municipal manager Mike Sutcliffe has acknowledged it to be just one element of a far greater problem, the potentially devastating effects of ill-managed urbanisation on the whole ecological system. Human habitation necessarily has an impact on the ecology of the environment. It need not be entirely destructive, but when planning and management are inadequate, every life form, including human beings themselves, is put at risk.

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