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New plan to tackle marine pollution

South Africa discharges between 90 000 and 250 000 tonnes of rubbish into the ocean every year, according to a United Nations Environment Programme report. This is equivalent to five trucks dumping garbage in the sea every hour. Globally more than four million tonnes of waste lands up in oceans. 

The litter is digested by mammals and fish, making them sick, and destroys large tracts of marine life. 

South Africa’s poorly managed landfill sites contribute to ocean pollution; street litter and waste washes into waterways and rivers when it rains. Poor waste management and limited recycling efforts are also a big part of the problem.

The department of forestry, environment and fisheries is launching an initiative in August to address the problem of marine pollution and litter. The new initiative, called “Source-to-Sea”, was announced by Minister Barbara Creecy last week.

The department’s director of communications, Zolile Nqay, said the R60-million programme will start in August or September and run for six months to February next year. 

“The catchments are currently being identified in consultation with district municipalities. The project aims to prevent litter from entering the ocean by cleaning a total number of four river embankments and two other waterways per district, per month, depending on local circumstances,” he said. 

The department will employ 100 people in each of the 16 districts where the programme will be run. 

“The participants will be responsible for regular collecting of litter and waste along priority rivers and other waterways within the 16 coastal districts and will record and report on the volume of waste recovered from these water bodies.

“The environmental sector has at its disposal a variety of regulatory tools that it could apply to manage human activities along and on our seas. This includes issuing authorisations with conditions to ensure impacts are mitigated, restricting certain activities from occurring and applying spatial planning tools to manage potentially competing uses of the ocean space.” 

Research shows people are to blame for the damage to our oceans. It is also well known that rivers and other waterways such as stormwater canals transport litter to the coastal environment.

Guided by the reality that marine pollution, especially plastic, is from land resources, the initiative will focus on managing litter sources in upstream catchment areas. This is where litter gets trapped and is then transported along rivers to the coastal regions and the sea. 

The economic costs associated with marine pollution include litter removal and clean-up operations. Another possible financial cost is the decline in coastal tourism. 

“The main objective of the pilot project is to reduce the prevalence of marine litter by up-scaling efforts to capture and recover litter in these river systems,” the department said in a statement. “The project also aimed to monitor and characterise the litter recovered and to conduct school and community awareness initiatives. 

Research has also shown that marine litter comes mostly from towns and cities near rivers and waterways.

“The Source-to-Sea programme involves multiple government departments, at the national, provincial and local level, as well as the private sector and other stakeholders, working in priority catchment areas, and providing job opportunities through the working for the coast programme,” the department said.

Creecy said the programme is set to create 1 600 new jobs as part of the presidential employment stimulus initiative. 

It also closely follows South Africa’s oceans economy programme, which prioritises marine protection and ocean governance.

“As we grow our ocean economy, we also have to be cognisant of the impact of increasing human activity on the health of our oceans. It is essential that we manage our footprint and impact and put in place measures to protect our ocean and coastal ecosystems and biodiversity within the context of sustainable development,” Creecy said. 

Chris Gilili is an Adamela Trust ­climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open ­Society Foundation for South Africa

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Chris Gilili
Chris Gilili is a climate and environmental journalist at the Mail & Guardian’s environmental unit, covering socioeconomic issues and general news. Previously, he was a fellow at amaBhungane, the centre for investigative journalism.

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