River health on the rocks

Professor Justin ORiain, director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife at UCT, led the river inspection.

A leading environmental expert has warned Hout Bay residents that when rain eventually falls this winter the Hout Bay River will deliver the “mother of all faecal loads” into the bay.

Professor Justin O’Riain, director of the Institute for Communities and Wildlife at UCT, led members of the Friends of the Rivers of Hout Bay and interested residents on a tour of the Hout Bay river system on Saturday May 13.

According to Professor O’Riain, despite the lack of rain the two large stormwater pipes leaving Imizamo Yethu have been flowing strongly this summer, delivering a heavy load of pollutants and sewage into the Hout Bay River.
he problem was aggravated by “excessive and unregulated” abstraction of water by residents living further up the Hout Bay River.

While the City of Cape Town has embarked on an extensive cleaning-up of solid waste on the banks of the Hout Bay River, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services, Xanthea Limberg, acknowledged that the challenges of Imizamo Yethu were “vast”, as there was not enough land to accommodate all the people living there and to provide the necessary services.

The Sentinel was invited to join the tour on Saturday, beginning outside the waste drop-off facility in Imizamo Yethu.

Bronwen Lankers-Byrne, of Thrive Hout Bay, said that according to a 2009 study by Thrive and Hout Bay Recycling, there were 12.5 tons of waste coming out of Madiba Square in Imizamo Yethu. Ms Lankers-Byrne said recycling the waste was not only essential to reduce the volume going to landfill sites but also to providing jobs and improving the health of the environment.

Pointing out the flow of dirty water at the bottom of NR Mandela Road, stemming from the blocked sewer drains, Professor O’Riain said people were forced to walk through polluted water on the sides of the road.

“What you are smelling is faeces,” he told the group. “The low sewer lines block almost daily and overflow into the streets, and then the stormwater system. Foreign matter being introduced to the sewer system is to blame.

“We have noticed that some residents who are using magazine paper or other unsuitable paper are actually placing it next to the communal toilets to prevent the toilets from blocking. This raises other health issues and highlights the need for affordable toilet paper and more public toilets.”

He said shack dwellers were also pouring grey water and sewage directly into the stormwater system.

“This is why the stormwater E coli count has been as high as nine billion parts per 100ml,” he said.

The tour group was then taken to the low-flow diversion chamber outside the woodcutters’ yard on Victoria Road.

Here, Professor O’Riain explained that because the stormwater was so polluted, the City had designed a system to divert it into the sewer system.

“This only works when it is not raining, hence it saves the river from pollution during low-flow periods only. However the low-flow diversion needs constant servicing to function properly and it is quickly overwhelmed by the solid waste that enters the system because of poor waste management in IY.”

To counter the problem, residents are pushing for a large retention pond in this area, to house the polluted water when the chamber is blocked.

The “first prize”, he said, would be a micro-sewerage plant in the area, although he acknowledged that it would be very expensive to establish.

“A retention pond is lower hanging fruit, but we definitely need such a stop-gap measure or the river will continue to be degraded,” he said.

The group then moved to the river proper, where Professor O’Riain pointed out that the water was “fatty and grey”, making it impossible for life to be sustained.

“It’s incredible to think that there was a time that the woodcutters could drink the water from this river,” he said.

A stark contrast was illustrated between the rivers and the grounds of the Kronendal retirement village, where water running off the property has been aerated and invasive species removed from the pond.

“This an excellent rehabilitation story, and gives hope for the wetlands lower down,” said Professor O’ Riain.

About an hour into the walk, the tour party came across otter spoor. Rather than an indicator of improvements on the river, Professor O’Riain believed the otter was abandoning the river for the clean wetlands at the retirement village.

He said the wetlands off Manchester Road – long used as a dump for builders’ rubble – were ideal for the sort of rehabilitation seen at the retirement village.

The City had cleared invasive thickets in the wetland about a decade ago, which had seen the return of many indigenous plants and animals.

“This highlights the resilience of our systems and how well they respond to a little help from authorities,” he said.

Unfortunately, the state of the water flowing onto the beach did not paint such a positive picture.

The professor said that two weeks ago, the water in the lagoon had been fetid, black and oily – the result of yet another heavy pollution event that had killed fish, driven off kingfishers and spawned the sewage worm – one of the few organisms that could survive the low oxygen levels, he said.

“This odious water body is dangerous to human and animal contact and should be avoided. So too the river running to the sea.”

Professor O’Riain said more people, overwhelmed and ageing infrastructure and less public pressure had seen the river regress.

“The City has failed to grasp the nettle and upgrade IY into an integrated, functional suburb of Hout Bay. The people and the environment of Hout Bay are bearing the costs.

“We, the residents, and the city’s foot soldiers know what the problems are, how to fix them and what the consequences of failing to do so are. We need better sewerage and stormwater infrastructure, silt traps, retention dams, upgraded diversion chambers and the treatment of sewage on land before returning clean water to the river, wetlands and beach,” he said.

Ms Limberg said the river situation was being exacerbated by the area’s steep terrain.

“Furthermore, the recent fires damaged our sewage infrastructure and did result in pollution entering the stormwater system.”

However, she said the City had now started cleaning the most polluted parts of the Hout Bay River and was “super blocking” Imizamo Yethu – redesigning the township’s layout for better utilities, including water and sanitation. “The City is also working with the Hout Bay Rivers Catchment Forum (HBRCF) to investigate pro-active measures to reduce the pollution load entering the stormwater system.”

She said signs were posted at the beach and lagoon to warn the public about the hazardous water quality.