A challenge to Cape Town’s new administration: please fix the sewerage system

This is one thing which affects all of us

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Photo of algae in Rietvlei

Blue-green algae blooming in Rietvlei. The algae, fed by nutrients in sewage, produces a toxin and reduces oxygen levels in the water, which can lead to fish die-offs. Archive photo: Steve Kretzmann

Cape Town’s new Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis has many challenges on his hands but few are more urgent than fixing Cape Town’s sewerage system.

The system is in crisis. Rietvlei, Zeekoevlei and Zandvlei are (in theory) closed for recreational use because of sewage spills. Dirty water is seeping onto our beaches.

This is one problem that has got noticeably worse under the DA’s watch. While the City often blames the national government for its problems, that won’t wash here.

The previous administration gave unclear answers about the sewage problems and appeared to be floundering. Mayco members Grant Twigg (waste management) and Zahid Badroodien (water) need to tell us what precisely the problem is, what needs to be done to fix it, how long it will take and how much it will cost.

We need less talk about how the system is clogged up because people throw things into it, and more action to make it easier for people to dispose of their rubbish. We need better rubbish collection in informal settlements and other densely populated areas, better sanitation for those who don’t have flush toilets, and, in time, the systematic recycling of rubbish across the city.

We should be spending more money employing people to clean up the rivers and coastline to stop the rubbish reaching the ocean. But in the end the answer is to stop the pollution at source, by making rubbish disposal and recycling very easy for everyone.

A “world-class” city cannot allow its beaches, rivers and vleis to be polluted with sewage and garbage. Nor can it allow its people to live in unsanitary conditions. The broken-down sewerage system affects all of us and it’s one thing the new Mayor should prioritise.

TOPICS:  Ailing Cape Town sewerage system

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Dear Editor

The City of Cape Town readily accepts the challenge to fix the sewerage system, indeed this has been identified as a top priority for newly-elected Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis and a key inspiration for why he ran for office.

As the Mayoral Committee Member for Water and Sanitation, I believe that the solution to our water pollution challenge involves bringing together the academic community, concerned residents, community organisations, and the City, to share resources and strategies for significant in-land water quality improvement.

Our commitment is to do even more, together with residents, to clean up Cape Town’s polluted waterways and environment - a complex challenge to be faced with humility and dedication.

We are not interested in merely managing decline, and firmly believe that the best days for our city’s waterways lie ahead.

In support of Cape Town’s transition to a more water sensitive city, we are raising the level of ambition by upping targets and expenditure for major infrastructure upgrades and preventative maintenance of the sewer system.

These raised ambitions will be fully apparent in the City’s new budget for 2022/3, on which the public will have an opportunity to comment.

This includes more kilometres of pipe replacement each year, more preventative jetting and clearing of the sewer system, enhanced responsiveness and intelligence on sewer spill incidents, and more budget for critical sewer pump station upgrades.

Making sewerage infrastructure more resilient against the illegal dumping of foreign objects will be a key focus, including grids to protect pump stations. We are also closely tracking the progress of major bulk sewer upgrades and Wastewater Treatment Works upgrades underway in key parts of the city. It is vital that we navigate procurement red tape and avoid the protracted tender appeals that have caused slippage on the timelines of this major infrastructure.

Water, sanitation, and waste management, are at the heart of municipal governance, and pre-requisites for economic growth.

It must be noted, however, that infrastructure investment needs to occur alongside meaningful behaviour change to achieve the best impact in reducing pollution. While we commit to the shortest possible timeframes on infrastructure upgrades, and full transparency on this, we simply must achieve the requisite shift in behaviour.

It is a fact that 75% of all sewer blockages in our city are linked to misuse of the system, including the dumping of oils, fats, rags, building rubble, and all manner of discarded objects into the system.

We are committed to playing our part in improving waste management in communities, raising awareness about preventing sewer blockages, enforcing by-laws governing our urban spaces and waterways, and protecting unserviceable land from illegal occupation attempts.

Infrastructure investment and improved basic services are the means by which we contribute to improving the dignity of all Capetonians.

The City’s administrative structure must reflect our care for better services and dignity, especially for the poorest residents. A key first step in this new administration has been the creation of a standalone directorate for Urban Waste Management under my Mayco colleague, Grant Twigg, alongside a new Future Planning and Resilience Directorate to ensure we meet the future planning demands of a rapidly growing city.

Wherever you live in Cape Town, we want to ensure that our residents feel the improved speed, energy and sense of pride in our city that we are constantly looking to build.

We aim to set the standard for service excellence, professionalism and the ethic of public service, by answering service requests promptly, and ensuring that residents are given the respect of an explanation if their complaints will take some time to resolve.

Our strategic interventions will prioritise returning our waterbodies to good health by incrementally improving the water quality in critical catchment areas.

We all want to live in a city that we can be proud of, a city that cares for residents and does more to protect our natural surroundings.

The City is steadily laying the foundation for immediate and long-term solutions, including the necessary partnerships with residents. By working together, we can make progress on improving our environment, and ensuring dignity and economic activity for residents who live around and depend on our waterways.

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