‘Blood river’ sparks health-risk fears

Health risk: Dead catfish line the banks of the ecologically sensitive Kamfer Dam. Photo: Danie van der Lith/Diamond Fields Advertiser

Health risk: Dead catfish line the banks of the ecologically sensitive Kamfer Dam. Photo: Danie van der Lith/Diamond Fields Advertiser

The mass death of fish in Kimberley’s ecologically sensitive Kamfers Dam has been blamed on a torrent of animal blood, offal and sewage that flowed through the city last month.

The spillage into the dam, one of three Southern African breeding sites of the lesser flamingo, was caused by malfunctioning sewage pumps.

The Democratic Alliance’s Ismail Obaray, a member of the Northern Cape legislature, blamed the death of hundreds of catfish on the pollution.

“This spillage should never have occurred – it was a preventable incident,” he said.

At the time of the “river of blood” incident, Obaray warned that a deadly outbreak of botulin poisoning was possible and appealed to the province to take over the city’s sanitation services.

He said “punitive measures” should be taken against those responsible for the “illegal disposal” of offal in the sewerage system. “We call for the naming and shaming of the perpetrators,” he said.

Investigation
Last week the Sol Plaatje munici­pality released a statement urging local residents not to consume or buy fish caught at the dam.
Council spokesperson Sello Matsie said that the council and the provincial departments of agriculture, health and environment are investigating.

The council has just commissioned a R63-million refurbishment and expansion of the Homevale water treatment works, Kimberley’s largest.

Matsie denied any connection between the fish deaths and the blood spillage, which he described as an “unfortunate” one-off incident. He said the fish may have died because of falling water levels and oxygen depletion.

Last month’s “river of blood” was the latest in a series of problems at the dam, including an outbreak of avian botulism in 2013 that killed more than a thousand lesser flamingos, geese and ducks.

In 2010 animal conservationists warned that deteriorating water quality at the Kamfers Dam was creating an increasingly hostile environment for flamingos.

Obaray also pointed to the potential threat posed by the spillage to human health and ecotourism. It created an optimal breeding environment for botulism, which was “very dangerous to humankind and could result in many deaths of human beings who come in direct contact with it”.

He called on Northern Cape environment MEC Tiny Chotelo to “intervene and take control, as well as implement corrective measures in order to avoid a possible outbreak that will affect not only the birdlife at the dam, but the health of the residents of the city”.

Deadly
Botulin is a bacterial toxin produced in polluted soil and water that causes a fatal paralytic illness. A litre is said to be sufficient to kill the population of New York City.

Obaray also wants the council to fully investigate the spillage, because it could have resulted from a more serious malfunction of the sewerage system. He blamed the municipality’s failure to maintain the system as the main cause of the leak.

Matsie said the blood spillage at the Flamingo Casino pump station was the result of two pumps being out of order. He claimed the DA exaggerated the incident, which was minor and could have occurred at any time.

He explained that the pump station has a filter for the Kimberley industrial area from which waste material is pumped to Homevale for recycling.

Matsie said samples had been collected from dead fish and sent for testing. Yet, “the suspicion at the moment” is that falling oxygen levels in the dam were responsible for the fish perishing en masse.

Obaray – who visited the dam at the time of the incident – said it was “shocking to find hundreds of dead fish piled up in black bags, but no one on site to remove them.

Risk
“The dead fish pose a serious health risk: residents and flamingos consume fish infected by raw sewage.”

In 2013, hundreds of dead water birds were found scattered on the banks of the dam and in its shallows.

A water analysis expert called in by Birdlife Africa, Jan Roos, said he believed avian botulism was the cause, as the birds all displayed symptoms of paralysis.

Roos said the inflow from Homevale will have to be monitored to ensure “the radical reduction of organic matter flowing into the dam”.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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