/ 31 January 2019

Who’s to blame for dying flamingos?

A rescued Lesser Flamingo chick peers out of a box after being moved from a dam in the Northern Cape Province to the SANCCOB rehabilitation centre in Cape Town
A rescued Lesser Flamingo chick peers out of a box after being moved from a dam in the Northern Cape Province to the SANCCOB rehabilitation centre in Cape Town, South Africa. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

Reports of thousands of flamingos being shipped across South Africa — courtesy of local mining company Kimberley Epaka Mining JV (KEM-JV) — have led to questions about the role played by drought and poor infrastructure.

About 2 000 chicks have been relocated from Kamfers Dam in the Northern Cape, six kilometres outside of the province’s capital, Kimberley. The chicks were abandoned by their parents because of the dam’s low level, chief executive officer of BirdLife South Africa Mark Anderson says.

Kamfers Dam became a key breeding island in 2006 when Ekapa Mining built a large, S-shaped island for the dam’s Lesser Flamingos.

Between 2007 and 2011, over 24 000 flamingo chicks would hatch on the island, including a hundred Greater Flamingo chicks.

The dam would become known as “the first breeding locality in South Africa” for the threatened Lesser Flamingo, according to BirdLife South Africa, one of only four sites in the world where the species breeds.

However, the dam’s location in the semi-arid Northern Cape means that it requires a lot of water.

Typically, the dam gets its water from three main sources: partially-treated effluent (liquid waste) from Kimberley’s waste treatment plant amounting to 30 to 40 megalitres a day, at least half of Kimberley’s storm-water runoff and rain.

But, despite flash floods in 2010 that flooded Kamfers dam and destroyed two railway lines, causing millions of rands in damage, the Northern Cape has faced a long drought.

“Kimberly is very dry. They’ve had about 50 mm of rain since last April,” said Anderson, saying hopefully Kimberley will get some rain this weekend.

Infrastructure problems such as leaking pipes and malfunctioning pump stations means that the city’s effluent is not reaching the sewage works and rather flowing in to the veld.

Without storm-water runoff and rainwater and leaky infrastructure too, Anderson has blamed the Sol Plaatje municipality for the Flamingo chicks suffering.

It is expected that between five-and six-thousand chicks could be breeding at Kamfers Dam. Dr Andrew Jenkins from BirdLife South Africa will be monitoring the situation for the next few weeks to record the number of breeding birds and advise on further rescues.

The ideal situation, says Anderson, would be to have the flamingo parents raise their young.

According to Anderson, the Homevale Waste Treatment Plant has been malfunctioning for the better part of a decade. Speaking to local newspaper the Diamond Fields Advertiser, Anderson said only 10 to 15% of the effluent is being piped into Kamfers Dam because of “leaking pipes, faulty pump stations [Gogga Pump Station] and a non-functioning sewerage works [Homevale Wastewater treatment]”

He said that the municipality had “not got their act together” to solve the infrastructure issues despite petitions, studies into the matter and lawyers letters calling for action.

When asked about the situation with the flamingo at Kamfers Dam, Sol Plaatje municipality spokesperson Sello Matsie said there had been “challenges”, denying Anderson’s claims that the municipality was to blame. “The municipality has not been sitting on its hands,” said Matsie.

According to Matsie, the municipality instituted an emergency intervention at Homevale Waste Treatment Plant in 2008 after ageing infrastructure could not handle the 40 megalitres of effluent a day that was flowing into the plant which only had a 37 megalitre capacity. The intervention intended to increase Homevale’s capacity to process 48 megalitres of effluent a day.

Several million rand was then spent on refurbishing the waste treatment plants over the last 10 years, but over time, the pipelines transporting the water have also corroded. Matsie said a contractor is working on repairing the pipeline which should be completed by June this year.

The municipality, Anderson told the Mail & Guardian, is obligated to preserve the dams water levels, saying the Sol Plaatje municipality itself has recognised the importance of the dam’s biodiversity. Both the municipality, a local school and several business in Kimberley use the Flamingo in one form or another in their names and logos.

However, the head of the Northern Cape department of water and sanitation, Abe Abrahams, said it would be improbable to have the municipality fill the dam: “We are in the middle of a drought, and we would not be able to fill the dam anyway.” Abrahams confirmed that the municipality is not obligated to fill the dam.

When asked what action the department would take following the pipe leakages, Abrahams said: “The Department issued a directive in terms of Section 19 and 53 of the National Water Act, 1998 to the Sol Plaatje Municipality on 7 January 2019, directing them to address the various sewage spillages in the larger Kimberley.”

Another issue is that the effluent used to fill Kamfers Dam is also used in mining activities in and around Kimberley, and, according to Matsie, the mining operations received the effluent first before it is distributed further to farms, like the one that is home to Kamfers Dam.

When asked for comment about KEM-JV’s agreement with Sol Plaatje municipality, chief executive of Epaka Mining Jahn Hohne said its agreement with the municipality guarantees Ekapa Minerals a minimum of 10 megalitres of compliant effluent per day from the Homevale WasteWater Treatment Plant. However, KEM-JV said it too had experienced “shortages of compliant effluent for the past three years”.

“There has been a dramatic reduction in available effluent during the past six months, to the point that it is receiving less than four megalitres per day to pump to its processing plant,” said Hohne.

When asked whether it should be filling Kamfers Dam, Hohne said KEM-JV built the flamingo breeding island on the expectation that the city would continue to produce 30 megalitres of sewage that would be sent to Homevale wastewater treatment plant.

“The accountability to deliver sufficient raw sewage to the HWWTP and the processing thereof into compliant effluent has always been with the Sol Plaatje Municipality,” said Hohne. 

“Ekapa Minerals has reduced its water consumption dramatically over the past two years in an attempt to help alleviate the situation as much as possible. These low daily pumping volumes are, however, not sustainable in terms of Ekapa’s process requirements to remain viable. — With additional reporting by Lauren Dold

The article has been amended to reflect comment from Kimberley Epaka Mining JV