- Over 700 million liters of untreated sewage are dumped into eThekwini’s rivers, dams and oceans every day.
- The threat to public health is high as levels of E. coli are skyrocketing.
- Water experts and political parties have questioned the competence of testing water samples.
- Two sewage treatment plants collectively discharge 461 million liters of effluent directly into the ocean per day.
The decision by the Municipality of eThekwini to reopen several beaches that had been closed due to high levels of E. coli, has been questioned by water experts, the Democratic Alliance and ActionSA.
Last week, municipal spokesman Msawakhe Mayisela said the decision to reopen Durban’s beaches was due to improved water quality standards.
“Recent water tests by experts have confirmed that the beach water is at an acceptable level for recreational activities,” Mayisela said.
But this week, ActionSA eThekwini caucus leader Alan Beesley said readings from E. coli at Country Club Beach were more than double what is considered the “critical” level of E. coli.
“The latest readings from Talbot, an independent lab taken on November 3, 2022, show the Country Club beach had an E. coli level of 1,267 CFU/100ml. The critical E. coli level being 500 UFC/100ml, this beach should have been closed to beachgoers, but it remains open, Beesley said.
ActionSA’s statement followed that of the DA. Last week, DA Ward Councilor Sakhile Mngadi accused the municipality of dishonesty. Mngadi said 17 of the 23 main sewage pumping stations were still not working, eThekwini was putting people’s lives at risk by opening the beaches.
“My advice to residents is to stay away from the beaches until independent testing can verify the city’s claims. Treat all information about this as unverified until independent scientists can provide impartial reports.
Benoît le Roy, a wastewater management expert with 40 years of experience and CEO of the South African Water Chamber, told GroundUp that there has long been a question about the competence of sewage collectors. water samples and the testing process.
In September, Daily Maverick reported discrepancies with sewage pollution levels reported by the municipality.
Le Roy also questioned the qualifications of companies used to collect and test water samples, and said the public should be transparent about it.
READ | Several KZN beaches reopened due to ‘improved water quality’
“The whole chain of custody must be carried out by independent accredited persons,” he said.
Beaches open last week included Point, uShaka, Addington, South, Wedge, North, Bay of Plenty, Battery, Country Club, Brighton, Reunion, Pipeline, Toti Main and Warner beaches.
Westbrook, Bronze, Laguna, Thekwini, Mhlanga, Mdloti and Mgababa beaches remain closed.
Data from the Department of Water and Sanitation’s Integrated Regulatory Information System (IRIS) reveals that of KwaZulu-Natal’s 14 municipalities, 10 (71%) do not consistently meet minimum standards wastewater treatment. The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) system classifies them as “poor” (meeting compliance less than 50% of the time) or “poor” (meeting minimum effluent standards between 50% and 70 % time). This untreated and partially treated wastewater is discharged directly into rivers in KwaZulu-Natal and, in some cases, directly into the ocean.
According to the DWS system, at eThekwini, 75% of the 27 treatment plants it operates fail to treat effluent to minimum standards. They have the capacity to discharge 761 million liters of untreated or partially treated wastewater into rivers and the ocean, per day.
The DWS system shows that two wastewater treatment plants, Central and Southern, together have the capacity to discharge 461 million liters of effluent directly into the ocean per day. Both have 0% compliance for microbiological treatment, which is the indicator for E. coli and other faecal bacteria.
These numbers should alarm public health officials who should hold the respective departments accountable and find immediate solutions for rehabilitation, Le Roy said.
Nationwide, billions of liters of untreated and partially treated wastewater are released into the environment daily. “It’s not discussed by the government, to my knowledge, because it would be considered a clear admission of guilt, which it would be,” he said.
With untreated and partially treated sewage flowing via the river into which it is discharged, into dams from which drinking water is extracted, Le Roy said there was a very real threat that Unsuitable drinking water ends up in running water.
In August, Rashnie Baijnath, 38, died of severe diarrhoea, believed to have been caused by drinking contaminated water from a tap in Mariannhill. The municipality of eThekwini told the Daily Maverick that the water did “not meet acceptable standards for human consumption”. He once again asked residents to boil water for one minute before eating or cooking.
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E. coli can also be ingested through the respiratory tract. Gastrointestinal complications such as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting may occur.
“Zero South African sewage treatment plants, with the exception of Ballito (north of Durban) and Beaufort West (in the Western Cape), are designed to treat partially treated wastewater. Thus, the very real possibility of ‘Poisoning the population via drinking water distribution networks (such as taps) is a real threat that does not receive the greater urgency required,’ said Le Roy.
eThekwini Municipality acknowledged the sewage problem at a press conference late last month, when Mayor Mxolisi Kaunda said R460 million would be needed to repair water treatment plants and pumping stations. And on October 27, the municipality released a video outlining some of the challenges faced by its sewerage infrastructure during the April floods.
But Anthony Turton, a professor at the University of the Free State’s Center for Environmental Management, said the floods could not be blamed solely because a lack of maintenance and trained technicians over time allowed treatment plants from deteriorating.
This is confirmed by historical data on the AEP system, which shows that in the year 2021, the eThekwini wastewater treatment plant had an overall compliance rate of 54.5% for microbiological indicators and 68 .5% for chemical compliance, which concerns the presence of nitrates and phosphates in the treated effluent. The DWS rates both of these levels of compliance as “weak”.
The DWS did not respond to questions seeking clarification on E levels. coli in KZN and to quantify the threat to public health.
Methodology for calculating the volume of untreated wastewater at eThekwini:
- There are 27 wastewater treatment plants listed in the municipality.
- We added the capacity of each factory which amounted to 842,840,000 liters per day.
- We then added up all the stations whose rating was bad to bad, 21 in total, which represents 760,540,000 liters of poorly treated wastewater discharged into the receiving environments per day.
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