We won't take this sh!t anymore, says Milnerton


When he thinks back 25 years Richard Allen, chairman of the Milnerton Canoe Club, remembers Cape Town’s Milnerton Lagoon as a little paradise where you would see children jumping off the wood bridge into the clear, deep water. “There were prawn holes, fish jumping everywhere – sometimes into our canoes – and people fished in the lagoon. Today, there are no prawns left, we haven’t seen a fish in years and the stench of the lagoon is disgusting. The water is black and putrid. The deterioration has been like a slow cancer.”

Pollution from the Milnerton Estuary enters the sea

- Pic by Jean Tresfon

Allen is part of a fast-growing local movement ramping up plans to force the City of Cape Town to act on the environmental mess they’ve systematically failed to address. Several ratepayers’ organisations from areas near the lagoon have joined the fray. They’ve become so desperate at the city’s ineptitude and habit of putting “band aids on open wounds” that they’ve asked the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) to get involved. Outa is ready to take up the challenge, probably via the legal route.

The civic associations are also outraged at the city’s lack of transparency in providing water-quality data, which they only received after putting up a fight and then, it was on a non-disclosure basis. “I’m convinced they’re hiding something,” said Allen.

The Zimbabwe-born Allen moved to Cape Town when he was ten. Today, a marketing manager for a medical supply company and father of two, he’s “obsessed with water”: he competes in Western Province canoeing and surfskiing events and for years has been involved in development of the sports. But even that has taken a nosedive because of the polluted water.

“We had a huge canoeing club, about 300-strong, with Springboks and big groups of paddlers arriving for time trials. In years gone by, we didn’t worry about pollution and didn’t think twice about whether or not to paddle.

“These days, the different paddling groups have WhatsApp groups to discuss the state of the lagoon. Often, the message is ‘don’t come near, the lagoon’s disgusting’,” Allen told Noseweek. “We have names for every corner of the river as you go upstream. There’s Longdrop Corner, Poo Corner, and another spot that’s named after a woman who fell in and was hospitalised for two months with serious E. coli-related cystitis.”

Allen, who describes himself as a water warrior, is in the water “six times a week” either paddling, swimming, surfskiing, surfing or coaching.

“Water gives me peace. At the moment the lagoon is not giving me peace. If you came for a paddle and went upstream, you’d not just get physically ill, you’d get mentally ill. It worries me that some people don’t give a continental when it comes to nature.”

Richard Allen and nipper canoeists

Promotional blurbs for the Milnerton area include descriptions of its most identifiable feature – the lagoon – “formed where the Diep River enters the sea” with palm trees adorning its banks; a vital part of a living environment that plays a critical role in community life; a haven for bird watchers (173 species); canoeists; cyclists; walkers; joggers and photographers. The “spectacularly scenic lagoon” boasts numerous “stunning viewing points”.

“The Diep River meets the Milnerton Lagoon as it reaches the wood bridge to the island after flowing through the Rietvlei Wetland Reserve… which forms part of the 880ha Table Bay Nature Reserve,” says one blurb.

On 10 December, the planned grand opening of the restored 227-year-old wooden bridge, a provincial heritage site, was scuppered when angry, placard-bearing locals arrived to demand the city clean up the lagoon.

Invitations had been sent out for the event by Mayoral Committee Member for Transport, Alderman Felicity Purchase. The bridge had been closed since 2007 for safety reasons. The restoration cost more than R20 million – money from a government grant to promote non-motorised transport.

The protestors, besides calling for an urgent clean-up of the lagoon, demanded that the city release the results of their monthly water tests.

The lagoon’s pollution levels are worse than they have ever been. November’s E. coli count at the canoe club was 210,000 colony forming units (CFUs) per 100ml; the CFU count for October was 1,000,000 at Bayside Canal and 920,000 at Theo Marais Canal sections of the water.

National guidelines recommend  a count of 1,000 or less. E. coli is used as a bacteriological indicator for pollution levels.

The guidelines, called target water quality values, are specified for “full contact” or “intermediate contact”. The full contact value is set at 130 E. coli per 100ml and intermediate value, at 1,000 E. coli per 100ml water. These are old (1996) guidelines and the Department of Water and Sanitation has been revising them for the past 20 years without producing a firm, published result.

Young activists in action

The results for Milnerton Lagoon show that the pollution goes into the estuary via stormwater channels and from the Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Works which also releases treated effluent into the Diep River.

For years Allen has felt the issue “was the canoe club’s fight”. But on 10 December, at the public protest he realised it was “now no longer just our fight, it has become a huge community fight and that’s given me strength”.

He said one resident had arrived at the lagoon with a veil over her face and a fly-swatter, saying that the houses in the area had been taken over by midges.
 
“They have infested the whole of Woodbridge Island. She said she couldn’t sleep from the stench and the insects. She was crying.”

Other protesters carried placards saying “Save Our Lagoon”, “Bridge Over Filthy Water” and “Fish, Otter, Prawn, Gone”. Some protesters were in canoes.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous leading up to the protest, but once we got out there and took the officials by surprise, it all fell into place.”
 
Allen and fellow ratepayers groups from Milnerton Central Camps Bay, Milnerton, Summer Greens, Milnerton Ridge and Table View say they are sick of the city’s “rehashed nonsense” and unkept promises, despite having known for years about the pollution of the lagoon.

“They blame the pollution on backyard dwellers, overflows, cable theft and other nonsense, but fail to touch on the main issue causing the stink – which is that the sewerage works at Potsdam is not functioning properly …there has been no maintenance of the wastewater works. They’ve been pumping out raw sewage and dumping it into our rivers without pretreating it and without letting us know,” he told Noseweek.

“It’s criminal that they’ve not, in a year, informed us that Potsdam was not functioning correctly and that they’ve been pumping raw sewage into the system we’ve been happily paddling on.”

Allen painted a picture of a city whose key water officials “don’t seem to talk to each other” on issues such as budgets and inaction and who resort to internal finger pointing – “always at the person who’s not present, so we get nowhere”.

Civic associations wanting information on the water quality have to go through the rigmarole of formally requesting the figures from the city, which will (illegally) only release them to the ratepayers’ associations and then, will only do so subject to a non-disclosure agreement.

What is known is that the pollution of the lagoon is a result of what’s going on in the other water bodies feeding into the lagoon. Allen first started noticing serious changes to the lagoon’s water quality around 2003.

“I realised I was paddling in raw sewage; I couldn’t move forward or backward in the sludge that had come from Potsdam.” Much of the problem, he learnt, was that the wastewater works weren’t coping with the inflow from new developments upstream.

Allen took a break from serious paddling for a few years when he became a dad but resumed about six years ago, which was when he found the pollution had become “really bad”.

He became chairman of the Milnerton Canoe Club in 2015 and started ramping up his questions to the City of Cape Town.

“Even before I became chair, we’d run development programmes. We had one for about 25 kids from Dunoon and Joe Slovo Park. We managed to get a grant from the Lotto to run them. As chairman, one of my priorities was to grow the sport and get the development going again. The lifesaving and canoe clubs have a symbiotic relationship – lifesaving is the summer sport and canoeing is for winter.

“In 2015 we invited the people from the lifesaving club to bring their nippers across to the canoeing club. I was amazed. In walked 30 kids and their parents. I really thought it would take off but within a month or two, I was left with three kids. The rest of the parents had decided they didn’t want their children in the smelly lagoon. One by one they left. The ones who get sick are the new ones who fall in. Luckily we older guys are all pretty good paddlers so we spit the water out. We still gag when paddling towards the Milky Way, a stormwater exit where the grey water from Joe Slovo comes down in force.

“A lot of people moved to the Century City Canoe Club to paddle on the canals there instead.”

Allen says the water quality improves in the rainy winter months when the sludge is diluted. Summer is when the real problem sets in. He continues to coach whichever children stick it out, “but my biggest worry at the moment is that, when the weather is warm, hundreds of kids swim near the mouth of the lagoon. The city puts up signs and thinks their job is done.”

A few weeks back the city council opened the mouth of the lagoon to enable the sea to flush the dirty water, but some residents said this “just allows more shit into the sea”.

Fully aware of the situation, the city has made various promises through the years, particularly since 2011, but has not followed through, despite the Water and Sanitation department only having spent 65% of its budget.

A 2011 report compiled by the city, Improving the Quality of Storm Water Discharging into the Diep River, cited seven projects aimed at tackling the pollution, but the city has still not allocated funds for any of them. And just over two years ago there were murmurs of a big lagoon clean-up.

Ward Councillor Fabian Ah-Sing recently said the council’s investigations into the situation show there are a number of sources of pollution, which it will address. These relate to three main stormwater channels. One of the projects he cited was to divert stormwater to the sewer in the Dunoon/Doornback area. Other projects included installing litter traps and treatment of the wetland as well as “low-flow diversions to the wastewater treatment works” and “stormwater diversion-to-sewer by means of a diversion structure and separator”.

Other key players in the saga are Caroline Marx of the Milnerton Central Residents’ Association and Mandy da Matta, Table Bay Residents’ Association chair, who recently called on the city to urgently set aside money to fix the lagoon.

Mayco member for Water and Waste, Alderman Xanthea Limberg, recently said the city had implemented multiple infrastructure projects to improve the lagoon’s water quality and insisted the city had provided communities with water quality test results as often as possible.

Limberg said several sites, including the lagoon, had shown higher E. coli results because of “ongoing challenges related to informal settlements, backyard dwelling and overflows and blockages in the sewerage reticulation system, as well as cable theft, vandalism at pump stations and load-shedding”.

In October 2018, the city announced that it would embark on a six-year project to “more-than double” the capacity of the Potsdam Wastewater Treatment Plant from 47 million litres per day to a total of 100m litres.

At the time, Limberg said that a R350m tender for the engineering designs had been awarded and was in the public participation process. She also cited several completed projects, including the rehabilitation of the Sanddrift Bulk Sewer; an upgrade of the bulk sewer in the Joe Slovo/Phoenix area; the raising of sewerage manholes in the Dunoon sewer outfall to stop overflows going into the estuary, as well as diverting stormwater from Joe Slovo to sewerage systems feeding Potsdam, due for completion by December. Other bulk sewerage rehabilitation projects in the area were also planned, she added.

An inland water quality report compiled by consultants was due to be completed by March this year, while a coastal water quality report, which Limberg’s department last year stated would be available early this year, has yet to be released.

The Milnerton Lagoon saga highlights a more generalised looming problem: the rampant neglect of South Africa’s waste water infrastructure. So bad is Cape Town’s general waste water infrastructure that in 2018, the city took out an €80m loan (R1,3 billion) with Germany’s Development Bank KfW with the aim of modernising, expanding and rehabilitating Cape Town’s 26 wastewater treatment plants, most of which were built in the 1950s and ’60s and are outdated and poorly maintained, leading to untreated wastewater polluting the coasts and beaches with faeces and antibiotic residues.

Allen, bolstered by the turnout at the protest and by ever-growing support from the communities around the lagoon, said he and his fellow activists from the neighbouring ratepayers’ organisations will, with Outa’s support, be driving harder questions to the city.

The new Facebook page called #SaveOurPollutedEstuary has been posting relevant information to keep everyone informed.

Professor Lesley Green, deputy director of UCT’s Environmental Humanities South and an outspoken critic of Cape Town’s handling of water pollution data, said that visual evidence and the range of anecdotal accounts made it clear that the Milnerton Lagoon and infrastructure needed thorough, systemic investigation and community dialogue to understand where and why the problems are arising and how they can be properly researched and resolved.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable for City of Cape Town Water and Sanitation to put ratepayers’ association leaders in a situation of legal risk by releasing water quality results to them that are subject to non-disclosure agreements. Ratepayers’ associations are voluntary commitments made by citizens who work in the interests of local communities.

“Where there is a public health risk, they must be able to engage in dialogue with anyone they choose. They are not the enemies of the city! They are working towards what the Constitution guarantees: living in environments that are not harmful, using freedom of speech to do so, and working with independent scientists when they feel it is needed – since the Constitution guarantees freedom of scientific research.

“Cape Town’s Water Strategy document, released in mid-2019, made much of transparency, accountability and partnerships with the public. If the City of Cape Town was treating ratepayers’ associations and community organisations who challenge their data according to the standards they set for themselves, the situation would be on the way to being resolved. Transparency and accountability in governance is not limited to those who agree with you.
 
“Restricting discussion of water quality data is an exceptionally poor governance strategy. People who are desperate to live without water, air and soil-pollution have no option but to go to court, even though they know they will be opposed by teams of lawyers who will be paid by their own rates and water tariffs.

“Stopping the free flow of information wastes not only the money but also the goodwill that could be turned to resolving the problem.”

Meanwhile, the collaboration with Outa will kick off early this year. Outa boss Wayne Duvenage and his team – known for their strategies on issues like e-tolls – are committed to helping residents’ associations around the country “challenge the shortcomings of local government”. It looks like Milnerton Lagoon will be a priority.

Protesters and news crews swarm city councillor

Mayco’s Limberg told Noseweek that Cape Town liked to limit “raw” information on water-quality because “meaningful interpretation requires specialised knowledge, and there is limited capacity within the city to deal with fallout should a member of the public or media misinterpret the data, as is very common”. Water quality changes in the Milnerton Lagoon, she said, “are communicated to numerous interested and affected parties”. And, if the city’s Scientific Services branch identified health risks, signs were put up to advise the public, and over the holidays, “city staff were on site warning visitors of the risk of swimming there”.

“Please also note,” said Limberg, “the terms of use agreement only requires that the data not be distributed or published without the city’s consent.” She said the Milnerton Central Residents’ Association was “permitted to share results with their members” and added that the city was ISO9001 accredited (SABS certified). “In terms of that system, there is an internal procedure for the provision of data to external parties.”

The city had found that there were “various sources” of pollution which were hard to identify or trace to a single source. “But we do know that among the sources are the following:

- Irresponsible use of the sewerage system by local residents and businesses leading to blockages and overflows which can contaminate the lagoon.

- Landscaping/agricultural activities upstream (fertilizer).

- Illegal informal development which blocks the city’s access to its sewerage infrastructure and obstructs efforts to minimise the impacts of blockages.

- Backyard tenants who are not provided with toilets by their landlords, which leads to human waste being disposed into the stormwater system, which flows into rivers and eventually the ocean.
 
To address these, the city had “a number of projects at various stages of implementation/completion,” she said.

“Furthermore, the Potsdam Waste-water Treatment Works is being extended at a cost of R800m. However, this work will not be effective in preventing pollution. Residents have to play their part. It is illegal to dispose of feminine hygiene products, rags, wet-wipes, general litter, food scraps and cooking fat/oil into the sewerage system, as these cause blockages/overflows.”

Limberg also blamed “the challenge of urbanisation and informal development” which the city could not meet on its own. In trying to help the lagoon cope with the high levels of pollutants, one of the best things they could do was to try to get as much sea water into the system as possible. To this end the city had been using “honey suckers” (tankers) to pump contaminated water from the Theo Marais canal back into the sewerage system for treatment at the wastewater treatment plant, she said.

“The Theo Marais Canal runs through densely populated areas which have experienced high numbers of unplanned informal settlements. This represents a significant contribution to the overall water quality challenges.”

Asked for an update on the inland water quality report due to be completed by March 2020, Limberg said the city had advertised twice, late in 2019, but had no response so they would re-advertise in the coming weeks – “thus the report will not be ready by March.”

Would it be made public and which consultants would be doing the work?

Limberg responded: “The report will be a public report for all interested parties to access.”

Gregg Oelofse of the city’s Coastal Management section responded to Noseweek’s question about the coastal quality report that had been due early last year and which included the results of all the testing sites over a period of 12 months.

He said it had been completed and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) was producing the summary. The city intended to make these reports public by February/March 2020, he said.
 

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