Durban beaches stayed open during holidays despite unacceptably high E. coli levels: report

The report has been included in an ActionSA affidavit, in the party's high court bid to compel the eThekwini Municipality and relevant government departments to sort out the ongoing sewage crisis in the metro.
The report has been included in an ActionSA affidavit, in the party's high court bid to compel the eThekwini Municipality and relevant government departments to sort out the ongoing sewage crisis in the metro.
Image: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart

A recently released report shows that at least four Durban beaches were open to the public over the December festive season in spite of water quality tests showing they had unacceptably high readings of E. coli — sewage — with levels above the cut-off of 500cfu/100ml.

According to the report, which was tabled at an eThekwini municipal public accounts committee meeting recently, the beaches were Umkomaas, Wedge, South Beach and Vetch's Pier. And samples taken from Addington Beach and Ushaka Beach showed levels very close to 500 E. coli levels.

The report has also been included in ActionSA’s final replying affidavit, in its legal bid in the Durban high court to compel the eThekwini municipality and relevant government departments to sort out the ongoing sewage crisis in the metro.

The report is dated January 9 and signed by S Mazubela, deputy head, scientific services, water and sanitation and acting deputy city manager, trading services Sibusiso Makhanya.

It details excessive high readings of E. coli at several beaches, particularly between November 27 and December 31. Most of these beaches remained closed to the public over that time.

It notes that beaches are sampled for bacteriological faecal indicators — namely E. coli, as an indication of sewage being present in the system.

“A limit of 500cfu/100ml is used as a cut-off point for this. Exposure to water with high levels of these pathogens can be detrimental to human health,” it says.

In a table, it then details water quality results for Durban beaches that, at that time, were open.

The tests were conducted between December 27 and 30 — the height of the holiday season.

The readings reflect that Umkomaas had 563cfu/100ml, Wedge Beach 624, South Beach 520 and Vetch’s Pier 650.

Ushaka Beach’s reading was 496 and Addington Beach 465 — both dangerously close to the cut-off point.In his replying affidavit, ActionSA’s provincial chairperson Zwakele Mncwango, says the report shows that the opening of these beaches was “reckless at best, and a deliberate endangerment of the public at worst”.

In its court challenge, ActionSA is essentially asking for a declaration that the government respondents' failure to deal with the post-flood sewage crisis — which has resulted in raw sewage flowing into rivers and the ocean and beaches having to be closed — is unconstitutional and contrary to environmental laws and bylaws.

It seeks orders compelling the respondents to deal with the situation and appoint independent sanitation experts, engineers and environmental specialists who must report back to the court on progress.

The city and the relevant government departments have all filed affidavits opposing the application.

The city says it is doing all it can to resolve the situation but is hamstrung by lack of funding, even though it concedes it has been given R1.5bn from Cogta for construction and rehabilitation of infrastructure damaged in the floods.

It says R228m of this had been earmarked for repairs to water services — but this was still significantly below the total amount required.

Several of the government respondents agree that the municipality is not doing its job.

Dr Bonginkosi Dlamini, from the provincial department of economic affairs, tourism and environmental affairs, said in an affidavit the department had served many warning notices on the municipality, even before the floods, but the city had failed to comply with these.

He said the city had consistently and blatantly failed to halt the pollution of rivers and the ocean and his department had now laid criminal charges aimed at prosecuting the city manager, Musa Mbhele, and others for their inaction in controlling pollution levels.

Mncwango, in his latest affidavit, said except for Dlamini (on behalf of the MEC), the other respondents had played a “blame game” arguing it was the fault of other spheres of government that the sewage crisis had not been remedied.

“One startling admission is however common cause, and that is that the eThekwini infrastructure is in a dire state and needs urgent redress.”

He said the beaches were opened — suddenly “fixed” — in December with no explanation of the scientific basis for this.

“To argue that there is regular testing of the E. coli levels is of no comfort. No explanation is given to the court as to who conducts these tests, how often they are conducted and where the ‘regular updates’ are published ... the only inference that can be drawn is that the respondents are well aware that the E. coli levels presented infrequently are unreliable.”

He said the city had promised to produce an “action plan”, and the party and others would likely need to file further affidavits in response to this before the matter could be set down for argument.


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