/ 28 October 2022

People living around Milnerton Lagoon bemoan slow action to clean up sewage

Sewage 6598 Dv
Political interference, corruption, skills shortages, supply chain inefficiencies and red tape are among the causes of the eThekwini municipality’s water and sanitation woes that have led to a breakdown of the water treatment infrastructure. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The City of Cape Town is restoring the Milnerton Lagoon after a recent fish die-off, the second one this year, caused by sewage pollution. 

Cape Town mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis said: “The aim is to steadily close off pollution sources to the lagoon over time, building up to the ultimate goal of dredging the water body and removing the sediment containing decades-long build-up of pollution.” 

This will involve a multi-billion rand sewerage and stormwater infrastructure upgrade coupled with on-the-ground pollution mitigation measures.

But residents and some water experts, including Ferrial Adam, of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), said although the long-term solution made sense, a short-term one should be put in place.

“Local residents are passionate about living close to a beautiful and unique estuary normally full of aquatic and bird life and are frustrated that over two years after the directive was issued instructing Cape Town City to fix the problem, they are still evaluating and investigating. Residents want action and an end to the problem.

She added that the die-off was probably caused by the lack of oxygen or high ammonia levels in the water, both of which are caused by sewage pollution while a city document described the E coli count as “high and increasing”.

“There are no live fish left in the lagoon. [Those found dead on the beach] swam into the estuary mouth at spring high tide to breed and could not survive,” Adam said. 

“Better measures need to be installed to stop sewage spills entering the river and adequate sanitation needs to be provided to backyard dwellers and informal housing areas so that night soil is not disposed of into the stormwater network.” 

Caroline Marx, of the Milnerton Central Residents Association, said the pollution levels in the lagoon have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years.

“Mayor Hill-Lewis has made wetlands a key focus of the mayoral priority programme and the long-term plans are good but what is urgently needed is short-term interventions to assist until the long-term plans are realised,” said Marx. 

Hill-Lewis said it was complex environmental and engineering work, and professional consultants would be brought in to complete the job in the shortest possible time. 

Eddie Andrews, the city’s deputy mayor and member of the mayoral committee (MMC) for spatial planning and environment, said a team from the environmental management department and the water and sanitation directorate would monitor the work and provide residents and civil society organisations with information. 

Siseko Mbandezi, the city’s acting MMC for water and sanitation, said the city recently held the first of its quarterly public meetings to discuss long-term and short interventions.

“The city can remediate the Milnerton Lagoon, but the process will require a systematic and intentional approach over numerous years. The mayoral priority programme on sanitation sets a clear programme execution plan that will address the ambient water quality in targeted waterbodies,” he said.

The problem of dead fish in lagoons is not isolated to Milnerton.

In August, the Mail & Guardian reported a similar incident in the Isipingo Lagoon, south of Durban, which prompted eThekwini metro to close off the lagoon when it was suspected the water was contaminated with sewage, the result of a faulty pump. 

Desmond D’Sa, of the South Durban Community Environment Alliance, said the contamination of these lagoons goes beyond fish dying; it severely affects people who depend on the sea to make a living. 

Certain beaches have been closed in both Cape Town and Durban because of declining water quality. 

eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said that although there had been improvement in water quality at some of the beaches, others have deteriorated.

“The municipality will continue to test water quality at beaches on a regular basis. The public will be notified when it is safe to visit affected beaches,” said Mayisela. 

Duncan Heafield, chairperson of the Umhlanga Tourism Association, said the area relied on tourism to boost the economy. The beaches were closed for 241 days in 2021 and so far this year they have been closed for almost 240 days. 

“With the beaches closed, we are estimating that we are losing approximately R10-million a day in terms of revenue for our local accommodation, hospitality, and tourism establishments.” 

He estimated that R25-million a day will be lost in December if the beaches remain closed.