A gagging stench hung over Lavender Creek on Wednesday morning as clumps of human faeces made their way into the yacht marina at Durban’s harbour — a day after the eThekwini municipality had repaired the Mahatma Gandhi Road sewage treatment plant.
Four pumps had broken down the Thursday before and the city had had to wait for spare parts to be imported. This delay meant that, over the weekend, up to 750 000 litres of sewage was flowing into the harbour every hour. The municipality said the waste covered 20% of the 28km-wide harbour and, on the Friday, the Transnet National Ports Authority banned fishing and diving.
City spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said that mechanical rakes at the entrance to the pump station had been blocked because of the large volume of foreign objects washed into the system by the recent floods, causing the pumps to malfunction.
The parts finally arrived on Tuesday and the plant was repaired. But, on Wednesday, one of the pumps broke down again.
The water around the jetties at which hundreds of pleasure craft were moored was grey, not its customary green. None of the tiny mullet that usually swarm near the boats were visible, and the oysters and mussels along the jetties were open, killed by the waste in the water.
The subsistence fishermen were also gone. Acting port manager Nokuzola Nkowane extended the ban on diving and fishing in the harbour “until further notice”, saying that tests commissioned by the authority and conducted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research revealed widespread faecal contamination. Nkowane said it was at a level that “represents a risk to human health”.
The ports authority would test the water again once the city had fixed the pumps and stopped the flow of untreated waste into the harbour, before considering lifting the ban.
The disaster comes at a time when the city’s waste management services are at the centre of a multimillion-rand tender corruption investigation, over which city officials and mayor Zandile Gumede have been arrested.
It also came on the heels of a week of protests by city waste, electricity and water staff over the irregular appointment and promotion of 70 Umkhonto weSizwe veterans in the departments.
The ban on diving has had a severe effect on ship repair companies and the seven diving contractors operating in the harbour.
Two of the ship repair companies use divers to get the vessels into dry dock, and a second hull-cleaning company, which uses divers to defoul ships that dock in Durban, has also been hard hit.
Charles Maher, general manager of ship repair at Southern African Shipyards, said the company has already lost more than R1.3-million because of the diving ban.
“We used divers to dock our vessels. We were due to dock a vessel on Monday. Now we expect a wait of at best two weeks before the lifting of the ban so that we can work,” Maher said. The delays would have a knock-on effect — vessels booked for the next few weeks would have to be delayed because of the backlog.
“There is a serious effect on our businesses. This is the first time in 20 years in the port that we have had to stop work because of a ban like this,” he said. “It’s critical to stop this.”
Tracey Nettmann of Aqua Tech Diving Services, which specialises in hull cleaning, said ships had cancelled the work because of the spillage. “This has definitely affected us. Ships don’t want to come into the port if the service is not offered. They divert and go to another port.”
Nettmann said 90% of the vessels that would have used her services since Friday had cancelled, and she was also unable to do marketing and secure work for the upcoming weeks as there was no indication when the ban would be lifted.
Business with fleet clients was also in jeopardy. “Fleet owners want you to service all their vessels. If you turn one away, you will lose the business. It is very hard to build up work,” she said.
“Our main income stream is in the port. This is hurting us. We have lost thousands of dollars in business. This is a large sum for us. We are not a very big company, so every dime helps,” Nettmann said.
“We will feel the effect of this for three months.”
An employee of a second diving company said they had also been hit hard. “We’ve already lost two jobs, each for about $6 000 [R85 000], so this is a serious hit for us. We’ve been told we won’t be able to dive at least until the end of the month. We’ve been taking our own water samples. It’s bad.”
At the Point Yacht Club, adjacent to Lavender Creek, the Eat Greek restaurant had been closed because of the disaster, with the stench driving away potential customers. A printed sign taped to the door indicated that the restaurant would only be reopening “once the problem in the harbour has been resolved”.
“This is an ecological and financial disaster,” said Derrick Pogson, a boat rigger who supplies the yachts at the marina. “I feel sorry for the businesses operating here. Nobody can come and eat here. The rowing clubs need to use the harbour and nobody is fishing.”
Benny van Rensburg, the owner of Sarie Marais boat cruises, said that although the Wilsons Wharf section of the harbour had not been severely affected, because the waste had been diluted by the time it got there, the business had been hit.
“People are scared to come here. We are getting calls all the time from people wanting to know if it is safe. It is safe: we are on the water, not in it, but people are afraid to come and book.”
Mayisela said the city had reopened its beaches on Monday, which were closed at the weekend because of the spillage.
A major surfing competition on Sunday had to be cancelled and the Bluff Yacht Club also cancelled a regatta at the weekend.
When the M&G visited the beachfront on Monday only a few bathers were in the water. Lifesavers were on duty but were staying out of the ocean.
“We were told this morning to open the beaches because the sewage is only in the harbour now,” said one lifesaver who asked not to be named.
“I don’t know. The water is filthy and there has been no rain since the floods happened so it shouldn’t be so brown. People started swimming this morning. Maybe they don’t know, or maybe they don’t care.
“If I have to go into the water, I’ll use the ski. At least that way there’s less chance of swallowing the water,” the lifesaver said.