/ 24 October 2013

Dumping damns Philippi wetland

Moses Foad heads the community's campaign to get the wetland fixed to prevent another ‘unnatural disaster’ from happening.
Moses Foad heads the community's campaign to get the wetland fixed to prevent another ‘unnatural disaster’ from happening.

In the early hours of his weekend sleep three months ago Stanley Smit realised there was water running through his room in Philippi East. Climbing out of bed he pulled on the pair of boots he kept by his bedside.

The boots covered his knees, reaching just high enough to keep the water out. Forcing his metal door open against the water, the sprightly 71-year-old saw that the sand wall he had built to keep out the water from the neighbouring wetland had burst. His smallholding was a mass of froth and swirling water. The flowers and herbs that had been his livelihood for the past quarter of a century were in danger of dying.

He moved them to higher ground, but the water did not recede.

"For months all of this was underwater," he says, on a hot, sticky summer morning this week. The bright flowers are back, sitting in rows on the bits of dry ground left, ready to be sold to organic markets in the lee of Cape Town's mountain.

His yard had never flooded before, because the wetland slowed and absorbed water. It would then filter the water downstream to other wetlands and rivers. That ecosystem has been destroyed. "They filled our dam with rubble, so now the water doesn't run away."

"They" are construction and demolition companies that have been dumping rubble in the wetland for several years. The biggest of these, Ross Demolition, is being charged by the National Prosecuting Authority with 10 counts of contravening national environmental and water legislation for dumping here in 2010.

Eric Ntabazalila, the NPA's spokesperson, says the case is on the roll of the Blue Downs regional court for November 13. Each charge comes with a fine of up to R10-million, or 10 years in prison.

Ross Demolition's managing director was unavailable to comment, his office said.  

700 affected
The dumping has slowed in the past few weeks, but residents say that a month ago there were up to 15 large trucks dropping rubble around the wetland. The rubble has created an island in the middle of the wetland that is visible on Google Earth. It has also blocked the canals that bring water in and out.

"The heavy rains started on a Friday and by the early hours of the morning I knew we had serious problems," says Moses Foad. His home is above the wetland, so the water backed up and flooded his property and those around him.

Everyone in the community of 700 was affected. "The water started to push up the sewage, so I had to put a pump in the toilet. I had six running around the yard every two hours, and four of these burnt out."

This was at the start of Cape Town's winter rains, and the water stayed for the next 10 weeks.

The city's disaster management team provided blankets and food, says Foad, but the community was left to deal with everything else on their own.

Foad points to his knee to indicate how deep the water was – around half a metre. He also uses the phrase the community has coined to describe the flooding – "unnatural disaster", in other words, driven by human activity.

After three weeks of sun the ground is still spongy and areas clogged in mud are still damp.

Foad heads the community's campaign to get the wetland fixed so the flooding does not happen again.

His yard should be bustling with kids. Bismillah Farm once provided local children with a chance to interact with animals. The large garden, which is now a flat, grey space, with puddles of water, also produced enough for his family to feed the hungry.

"This is my peak season. There should be children swinging here and playing with the animals." Now the dozens of cages are mostly empty. A brilliant blue and green Blue Headed Parrot sits alone in its cage, its partner died in the constant cold and wet, says Foad. His fish pond has only a handful of Koi meandering through its waters. When the floods came, 30 others were swept out.

"I spent so many years collecting these animals. It was my livelihood. Now they are gone and I don't know how I can replace them, but I will," he says before walking around to his neighbour's yard.

Community's largest pigsty
Here, sand has been dumped in the middle to create a dry area. The small homes along the walls, which people rent, are still flooded. Crates provide a precarious foothold to step inside, but anything wooden is starting to rot. The still, cold water has driven the residents away.

At her home closer to the wetland, Basmeerah Mali says the area used to be healthy. "This was such a beautiful place when I came here 13 years ago."

Once, the water was clear, with the only colour coming from reflected clouds. Now it is stagnant, breeding slime and algae, as well as mosquitoes.

Walking along its verges now involves balancing on different amounts of rubble. The big slabs offer solid footing, but the small ones slide into the rust-coloured water.

Mali, a community worker, says two children drowned in the wetland this year. "The children come and swim when it is so hot in summer. It was safe. But now you can't see what is beneath the water so the kids' feet get trapped in plants and they drown."

Marina Adonis, whose home overlooks the wetland, is one of the lucky ones, because the house is on higher ground. This saved her from the water, but not from the mosquitoes and chest infections.

Her family has been worn down by illness since the flooding and she had to brave the floodwaters in order to get her sick son to the doctor. "Most of the water has gone, but the disease remains," she says.

The community's largest pigsty, a couple of metres from Adonis's home, is still underwater and the wooden frame is rotting. All the pigs inside were trapped and their bodies were left floating, bloated, in the water. The stench is strong.

"The smell is still on your clothes, no matter how much you clean them," she says. The new pigsties are being built on higher ground, which is at a premium as everyone tries to move.

Only one side of the wetland has been left rubble free and even here the signs of dumping are manifest. The soil is not the sand-dune white of elsewhere, but a dark brown-orange. The original soil was dug out for construction and backfilled with rubble and sand from construction along the city's waterfront.

"This is not our earth beneath our feet. This is the product of big contracts," says Foad.

The trucks have stopped dumping, but the damage has been done and he wants his day in court. "These companies cannot destroy our lives and get away with it."

Looking into the distance, he says the area must be rehabilitated. "Imagine what it was like when I first came here. I rode my horses here and on a Saturday we came to eat sandwiches while the children played. It was a paradise, and you didn't have to go somewhere else to relax."