/ 25 October 2023

Durban businesses warn of ‘severe’ economic losses due to ongoing beach closures

Screenshot 2023 10 24 At 18.42.26
eThekwini Municipality has partnered with Adopt-A-River, whose volunteers are pictured, to do joint water sampling. Photo: Adopt-A-River SA

Durban businesses have urged the local government to partner with the private sector to fix the city’s infrastructure and beach water pollution crisis to avoid ‘severe’ tourism-related economic losses during the festive season.

Prasheen Maharaj, president of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI) said it was “critical” that beaches are ready for the festive season.  However, he said the chamber had not received any assurance from eThekwini Municipality that its beach water E.Coli pollution issues would be resolved before the busy holiday season.

The city has been plagued by high levels of E.Coli found in water tested at its beaches over the past 18 months – especially since the April 2022 floods that led to damaged pump stations – and sporadic closures of swimming beaches for safety reasons.

Maharaj warned that the continued closure of beaches due to sewage spills was having a “devastating and lasting effect on an already very battered tourism and hospitality industry”.

“The ongoing closure of Durban’s beaches creates a poor perception of Durban’s ability to manage its tourism infrastructure. As we approach the festive season, we need to work together to co-develop plans to mitigate against potential risks,“ he said.

“We believe this issue is much bigger than just dealing with sewage spills. We have ageing infrastructure that needs to be maintained and replaced. Forming a [Public-private partnership] model is critical to help solve the crisis. It’s high time government requests the support of the private sector,” he said.

“Unless drastic actions are implemented, we will be writing an obituary chapter of our city. The current state of our infrastructure requires urgent attention.”

Maharaj said the chamber awaited information about the city’s festive season projects for December 2023.

“If we do not work together to develop an aggressive marketing campaign, we can expect a negative impact on the tourism industry and its entire value chain. Many tourists who travel to Durban travel to experience Durban’s beaches. The festive season is currently upon us, hence failure to restore the beaches will lead to severe economic losses,” he said.

“Closure of beaches over a prolonged period will impact both Durban and KwaZulu-Natal’s GDP negatively.”

eThekwini Municipality spokesperson, Lindiwe Khuzwayo, told the Mail & Guardian on Tuesday that the city had made significant progress repairing flood damaged sewage infrastructure that involved 189 projects across the city.

“The city’s water and sanitation department has been working hard to ensure that all infrastructure affected by the April 2022 floods is repaired. To-date, in July 2022, R110 million was made available from council funds and in September 2022 R49 million was made available from grant funding for large sewer diameter pipes which were completed by June 2023,” Khuzwayo said.

“It took the Municipality 12 months to fix a majority of damaged sewer infrastructure in affected areas. We have successfully repaired 90% of the larger diameter sewer infrastructure.”

Treasury’s national disaster fund had allocated an additional  R112 million to fix smaller diameter sewer infrastructure, she said.

“The total number of sewer repairs is estimated at 189 projects which will be completed by March 2024.”

Khuzwayo said the city is testing beach water to ensure public safety.

“These results are regularly updated on our website. While we are working aggressively to repair infrastructure, it must be noted that heavy rains that we normally experience in eThekwini also impact water quality.”

Joint water sampling

The municipality said it had embarked on joint sampling with the non-profit environmental organisation, Adopt-A-River, at Point Beach, uShaka, South Beach, North Beach, Battery Beach, Country Club and at three river sites at Kingfisher Canoe Club, Riverside Road, and below the Northern Wastewater Treatment Works (NWWTW).

The latest results of samples taken on 20 October and released on Tuesday showed the water quality at Point Beach and Ushaka was “excellent”, while South and North Beach were “acceptable”. However, Battery Beach and Country Club beach results were “poor”, recording E.Coli levels of between 2500 and 3400 cfu (colony-forming unit) per 100ml respectively. Water quality at all three river sites was “poor” at between 111 000 and 198 000 cfu/100ml.

Janet Simpkins, founder and director of Adopt-A-River, which has been independently sampling beach water for E.Coli testing, said the organisation had agreed to work with the city to collect a sample at the same points and times on a weekly basis. The samples are then sent to Talbot laboratory and to the city’s laboratory for testing.

Simpkins said Adopt-A-River had agreed to collect samples simultaneously to remove  confusion that had been created when the organisation and the city previously released separate beach water test results that differed vastly.  She said the organisation had also embarked on joint sampling in the December 2022 holiday season.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding when the one set of results came out and then eThekwini’s results came out, so this is a way of just combining the sampling and making it a better way to judge and compare the results,” she said.

“It is important to note that this is not an actual on-the-day reading of the E.Coli levels. We often see spikes of E.coli when we have heavy rains and if there is a bit of sand pumping going on. We use it to judge, as a record over time, which are the problematic areas and two keep coming up, if we look at the trends over time.

“Country Club and Battery Beach have been problematic, the city is aware of it. Over time we have seen if there has been heavy rain that it is not going to be the best time go to to the beach and swim because all the river water comes down and there are a lot of overflows – the golden rule is don’t take a risk and swim at the beach when there has been heavy rain.

“And if the water is discoloured and smelly it may be an indicator that there is an issue with a drain or pump station. Even though we have the results, it is not always an exact science because it is already 24 to 48 hours later and already the conditions in the sea have changed. We use these sampling tests to track and monitor trends and by doing this we hope to make it safer,” Simpkins said.