uMngeni Water plans on cleaning up rivers and, hopefully, solving eThekwini E. coli problem

The uMgeni in the eThekwini Municipality has become a breeding ground for bacteria and home to other harmful contaminants. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad / Independent Newspapers

The uMgeni in the eThekwini Municipality has become a breeding ground for bacteria and home to other harmful contaminants. Picture: Shelley Kjonstad / Independent Newspapers

Published Jan 17, 2024


eThekwini Municipality’s water supplier, uMngeni-uThukela Water, said that it plans on utilising a new monitoring system to find better sampling points for early detection of potential contaminants in rivers, as part of its 12-month contract with the city to manage sewage processing abilities.

This was in response to IOL’s questions about how it plans on reviving the many polluted rivers throughout the metropolitan area that have soaked up Durban’s raw sewage due to failing wastewater treatment works adjacent to them, among other reasons.

Many of the wastewater treatment works in eThekwini were damaged during the April 2022 floods, but interviews with water experts indicate that many facilities were not fully functional prior to the flooding.

uMngeni-uThukela Water stepped in to help the city fix some of the flood damage as well as operate and develop ten facilities throughout the metro.

Besides the raw effluent discharged into rivers by the treatment plants, other contaminants include pollution channelled into rivers via illegal stormwater drains built without permits, settlements adjacent to rivers that use them for sanitation purposes, and mostly businesses that pollute without regard.

“uMngeni-uThukela is implementing risk-based monitoring, which identifies additional sampling points for early detection of sources of potential contamination in the river streams.

“This additional monitoring is not taking away the current monitoring by eThekwini but rather complements these efforts so that we are able to better detect contaminants and act accordingly,” the water service authority said.

Part of the plan includes reviving the uMhlanga Wastewater Works, which last operated before the 2022 floods, and reducing the flow to the Ohlange Wastewater pump station.

Rehabilitation and recommissioning the Northern Works to improve the effluent quality contributing to the Blue Lagoon area.

Fixing the raw wastewater pipeline at Giba Gorge to uMhlathuzana Wastewater Works.

Reseeding of Phoenix wastewater works in hopes of getting the facility to a compliant level.

Other plants taken over include the KwaMashu, uMbilo, Isipingo, Amanzimtoti, and Central and Southern wastewater works.

IOL asked if the stipulated time was enough to carry out the tasks cited by officials.

“The contract duration is 12 months, renewable for another 12 months. As parties to the contract, uMngeni-uThukela and the eThekwini Municipality would discuss and agree on the need for any further extensions,” it said.

The compliance of a wastewater treatment facility is judged by how efficient it is at treating raw sewage before discharging it into a river source.

E. coli is the scientific indicator used to measure the amount of faecal matter in water, according to a wetland ecologist.

The more faeces in the water, the higher the E. coli count.

But failing wastewater treatment plants was not the cause of the polluted rivers, according to municipality spokesperson Gugu Sisilana, who maintains that there is no sewer crisis in the city.

Sisilana said the chemical spill from the UPL warehouse contaminated the Ohlange River and the Umhlanga Lagoon.

“The land surrounding the warehouse has been contaminated with an assortment of chemical products and remains contaminated nearly two and a half years later.

“The chemical 2,4,5 T found in tests on the warehouse platform, in the Pollution Control Dam, the unnamed tributary, the estuary, and even in the bivalves found in the open sea is extremely concerning,” Sisilana said.

In the south, she said the water contamination could possibly be emanating from chemicals released into the watercourse by industry/companies in the area after reports surfaced about pollution at the Isipingo River Estuary.

Sisilana said theft and vandalism to infrastructure were also contributing factors to river pollution.

“It must also be noted that river water quality is also impacted by the weather patterns, and whenever there is heavy rainfall, E. coli levels will increase due to excessive river contamination as per the examples given above and illegal sewer connections to storm water drains.”

The contaminant contributions by private companies could justify some of the city’s polluted rivers and estuaries, but the Umgeni River has been a major source of E. coli along the Durban beachfront, and no explanation was given about that.

Dead fish were found on the banks of the Umgeni River on Thursday by a team from Adopt-a-River after eThekwini Municipality closed beaches last week due to poor water quality. Picture: Adopt-a-River

According to Department of Water and Sanitation reports on the city’s website, showing the state of rivers in eThekwini, findings show that rivers progressively fell into a poor state in terms of bacteria in the water.

There are reports available for 11 months of 2023, excluding December.

According to these reports, most of the rivers found in central eThekwini are heavily polluted, while rivers towards the south are in an “acceptable” condition.