Cleaning our Waterways
||08 July 2012 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
It's half past five in the morning on Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town.
Derek Watts (Carte Blanche presenter): "This may look like a group of paddlers about to have some early morning fun and adventure. But they will face extreme danger. They are going to traverse some of Cape Town's most polluted waterways."
This intrepid group of travellers will paddle across Cape Town from Muizenberg beach to Table Bay along the city's foul waterways.
UCT urban water management expert Dr Kevin Winter is leading the raft of canoes.
Derek: 'Kevin, what would you say is the real aim of this paddle?'
Dr Kevin Winter (Urban water management expert): 'Poor quality water puts both health at risk and also ecological systems at risk, and we want to actually really make people aware of that - not just the City but also citizens as well.'
As Kevin and the paddlers make their way along Cape Town's filthy waterways, he'll be testing the water quality.
The first stop is a canal in the suburb of Retreat.
Dr Winter: 'So this is phosphate, which is typically one of the things we want to try and test in situ.'
High phosphate levels along the route indicate detergents, soap, industrial, and sewerage waste.
And high E. coli tested en route is from human and animal excrement bacteria - both extremely hazardous to human health.
Alistair Lee is a co-founder of the Peninsula Paddle, which is in its third year.
Derek: 'Alistair, are you worried about infections?'
Alistair Lee (Peninsula Paddle Co-Founder): 'We are a bit worried about it, but we try and take some precautions at least. We've all got shoes and some plasters and some ointments to overcome any scratches. Not too much precautions I suppose, looking at what we're walking in.'
While the paddlers wend their way across Cape Town, we went to investigate one of the causes of pollution.
Informal backyard dwellers dump their human and other waste onto adjoining canals, but so do outsiders.
Patsy February: "People come with dirt bins, with the wheels, and they drive and they dump their stuff. They come from that side, they come from this side; we don't know who it is.'
Either way, the canals are being used as a big rubbish bin, says Ward Councillor Jan Burger.
Derek: 'What's your assessment of this situation?'
Jan Burger (Ward Councillor): 'No, it is not good. You can [be] rest assured this area will be cleaned, again. Recycling is number one. They have got a registered dumping site where they can take the stuff and they can even sell the stuff.'
Derek: 'But what is being done to provide adequate sanitation?'
Jan: 'The City is now busy with backyarders, and they have got a project on as we speak now - toilets, electricity, water, everything.'
Any effort that brings basic services to those living in informal structures in backyards can't come soon enough.
When it comes to outsiders dumping their waste in these canals, Jan has a solution.
Jan: 'We shall have to find a way to close those lanes so that people have less access to the dumping here.'
Until that happens, the environment suffers.
Just a month before Kevin and the paddlers crossed Zandvlei, hundreds of dead fish turned up on these shores.
With pollution come excess nutrients. This caused an algae which starved fish of oxygen.
Derek: 'What can be done here?'
Dr Winter: 'The new thinking is to see whether we can build bio-filters - it services that dirty water before it actually ends up in the vlei. You have a responsibility to try and treat polluted water on the land.'
In March, we visited the Black River, along this route, and found it choked by hyacinth, an alien water plant.
[Carte Blanche March 2012] Louise Stafford (Kader Asmal Project): 'It is in fact the world's most damaging aquatic weed.'
Louise Stafford is overseeing the Kader Asmal Integrated Catchment Management Programme.
Phase one of the project is to remove alien vegetation from 11 rivers and 18 wetlands in the Cape Metropole.
[Carte Blanche March 2012] Louise: 'The objective of the project is to have ecosystem restoration. If we can achieve in future where we can at least swim in these rivers, I think it will be a major achievement.'
We travelled up to Princess Vlei, another wetland along Kevin's route.
Derek: 'When you're surrounded by such scenic beauty, you tend to forget what lurks below. And according to Kevin there's a huge difference between summer and winter.'
The onset of the first winter rains is much like flushing a toilet.
Dr Winter: 'The first flush normally brings the most amount of pollutants down, both bacteria and the nutrients and the heavy metals.'
It's exactly this flushing action that we first reported in Hout Bay's Disa River in 2010.
[Carte Blanche April 2010] Bongani Bingwa (Carte Blanche presenter): 'Hout Bay residents have been lobbying City of Cape Town officials for years about the raw sewage and rubbish dumped directly into the stormwater drains. When the water enters the sea the E. coli levels are simply off the charts.'
Since that report aired, new infrastructure has been built, directing human effluent from Imizamo Yethu informal settlement into the sewage system, instead of into storm water drains that land up in our rivers.
Derek: 'Now that solution with some engineering ingenuity didn't cost a fortune. So the question is: why can't it be rolled out to other polluted waterways across the city of Cape Town?'
Officials say it is slowly happening, but targets are some way away. In the meantime, we all need to help.
Dr Winter: 'The city cannot actually deal with these kinds of problems that we've seen in the waterways. This is also about citizens coming to the party. We need to provide other alternative means to tossing things over into the canals.'
Despite all that has been tossed into the canals, the paddlers look relaxed at the half-way break in Sybrand Park.
Derek: 'What do you think of the conditions of the waterways?'
Nick Bode: 'Going through the disadvantaged areas, it literally is their rubbish bin; it is their bathroom; it is their toilet. It's quite an eye-opener'.
Steph Gobin: 'Lots of nappies, and faeces, and garbage. So I'm a little bit scared [of] what's in my shoes when I take them off.'
The paddlers take precautions before entering the Black River - the most polluted stretch along their route.
Dr Winter: 'I don't want you to wake up on Monday morning with a sore throat or whatever, so we're going to put these masks on, use it to try and prevent the pollution getting onto your face, into your mouth.'
But it's a pleasant surprise - the Black River is very different to when we last visited in March.
The hyacinth has been cleared, and it's easy going for the paddlers.
Kevin is upbeat about the Kader Asmal project.
Dr Winter: 'That's one that we really want to see being continued with all the kind of energy and finance that can keep that program going.'
Derek: 'I joined Kevin on a double canoe for the last stretch along the Black River to Woodstock beach.'
It was when we got to the surf at Table Bay that the extent of the pollution hit home.
Plastics, human waste and other pollutants end up here, and it's of major concern to one of the paddlers, Lewis Pugh - renowned environmental campaigner and endurance swimmer.
Lewis Pugh: 'Wherever I am in the oceans, Derek, I see pollution. I remember a few years ago going right up, high up to the Arctic, 2000km away from any near settlement, and seeing pollution over all the beaches. I remember seeing a polar bear walking out and walking over all this plastic pollution.'
There's a sense of euphoria at the Milnerton Lagoon endpoint.
The paddlers have made it safely along Cape Town's waterways, a distance of 27 kilometres.
Dr Winter: 'To the paddlers, a really big thank you - 'you're the real heroes of today. You've gone through all the quagmire and the mess that's been going on around us there.' The challenge remains - the fact is that it's still a long way to go.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.