Is raw sewage being dumped into the sea in Cape Town?

By Kirstin Buick
25 November 2016

Residents are fuming after this drone footage emerged of a "milky cloud" under the water in Camp's Bay and Clifton.

A group of people believe raw sewage is being dumped into the Atlantic Ocean near some of Cape Town’s best-known beaches – but the municipality says the beaches are safe. Using a drone, Johnny Miller, a Cape Town photographer, last Tuesday took photographs of the sea about 500 m from Clifton’s Fourth Beach, and at Camp’s Bay. The photos show a milky cloud under the water. According to Miller, it’s sewage.

A photo posted by Johnny Miller (@millefotosa) on

Miller posted these photos on Facebook and Instagram. “If you swim at one of these beaches you’re basically swimming in heightened E.coli levels without knowing it. Since thousands of people use these beaches in summer it’s potentially a big problem,” he says. “The city says the sewage is treated by means of a sifting method, but I’ve heard first-hand that the sieves are damaged. This means anything flushed down a toilet lands in the sea. It’s unacceptable,” he wrote in his posts.

A photo posted by Johnny Miller (@millefotosa) on

Ernest Sonnenberg, a Mayoral Committee member for utilities says the sewage is sieved to remove solids, toilet paper and objects larger than 3 mm in diameter. Bacteria are also monitored and treated.

According to Sonnenberg this process reduces the concentration of contamination in sewage by 99 percent before it enters the sea.

“The outfalls are a reasonable distance from the coast so the transport of waste water to the beach or other areas where people come into contact with the water is excluded.

“Beaches in proximity to the marine outfalls show no additional E. coli burden. In fact beaches such as Clifton and Camps Bay have successfully retained Blue Flag status over many years which would not be possible if the outfalls were contaminating our inshore waters.

“In addition the sea around Cape Town has some of the world’s strongest ocean currents, which quickly dilutes the waste water. Any sign of pollution on beaches is the result of activities on land rather than outfalls.”

Miller is a member of a project launched by the organisation Social Weaver to take water samples five times a week at Clifton and Camps Bay over a period of three weeks. The project is financed by Code of Africa. Miller does the photography for the project with a drone.

Miller says the aim of the project is to make the public aware of what’s going on so close to our beautiful beaches. “Our aim is to create a more detailed analysis of what the water actually contains,” Miller says.

“The City of Cape Town does do testing, but only fortnightly. The results that I have seen from January to June 2016 are disturbing in the frequency of elevated levels of the bacteria E.coli and Enterococcus.

“We hope to be able to put together enough evidence to be able to predict when and where the levels of bacteria will be higher, based on tides, wind, and current.

“Everyone involved in the project is committed to clean air and water, and we all enjoy Cape Town's outdoor environment. We want the disposal options for wastewater to be as transparent and as healthy as possible.”

Miller says the problem spots are at Camps Bay near Maiden’s Cove, Green Point and Mouille Point.

The Cape Town municipality has ways of treating the sewage to remove solids but “it’s essentially raw sewerage that goes into the ocean close to our Blue Flag beaches. The water gets into the sand and that makes me sick to my stomach.”

The data from the water sample tests will be placed on a website daily.

Sonnenberg says this method of dealing with sewage is used in cities such as New York, Barcelona and Sydney. There are currently no plans to replace this infrastructure.

Water at Cape Town’s beaches is tested every two weeks. The water at Clifton’s Fourth Beach, Llandudno and Camps Bay is tested every week to make sure the water quality is what you would expect from a Blue Flag beach.

Wastewater disposal through an effective outfall with preliminary treatment is an affordable, effective, and reliable solution that is simple to operate and with minimal health and environmental impacts,” Sonnenberg says.

“Environmental assessments indicate that the outfalls are functioning adequately and within their design capacity, with no threat to water quality at our beaches. The City operates 27 wastewater treatment plants, several of which do require an immediate increase in treatment capacity to accommodate this rapidly developing city.”

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