Massive pollution in Durban sea as waste treatment facility fails

All bathing banned in South Africa’s surf city

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Photo of sign
A sign informs people that Durban’s North Beach is closed. Photo: Fred Kockott

Bathing, surfing and fishing have been banned in Durban due to raw sewage flowing into the water. Hundreds of thousands of litres of raw sewage are flowing into the port every hour.

The eThekwini Municipality’s health unit on Thursday ordered the City’s Parks, Recreation and Culture department to ban all bathing on Durban’s beaches until further notice.

An associated letter circulated by Transnet National Ports Authority states that the “severe sewage discharge” stems from the “failure of pumps at the eThekwini Municipality’s Mahatma Gandhi Pump Station” – one of the deepest and biggest waste treatment facilities in the city.

Diving operations, essential to the port’s ship repair precinct, as well as all fishing in the Port of Durban have also been suspended.

“Given the potential threat of infection to diving personnel, we have taken the decision to suspend all diving operations,” reads the statement from Transnet’s Acting Port Manager, Nokuzola Nkowane. “We apologise for the inconvenience but remain committed to the protection of human and marine life the port.”

An internal Transnet letter circulated on Thursday (that GroundUp has had sight of) said the City had taken out damaged pumps from the affected sewage works pending the arrival of spares. As a result, approximately 720,000 litres of raw sewage was now flowing into the harbour each hour, reads the notice.

An international surf contest, the ZigZag Durban Surf Pro, which was due to begin on Friday, has since been called off to protect the safety and health of about 120 top South African surfers as well as a dozen international contestants vying for entry into next year’s world championship tour.

“This is a serious marine and environmental disaster” said contest organizer, Tasha Mentasti who heads up the surfing division of Accelerate Sport. “I have never seen the city in such a diabolical state,” added Mentasti who grew up surfing on Durban’s Golden Mile.

The sewage discharge follows rubbish piling up on Durban’s streets after municipal workers embarked on an unprotected strike in protest against the employment of scores of people claiming to be Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans with little or no vetting taking place of their credentials.

Most were employed within eThekwini’s already dysfunctional Durban Solid Waste (DSW) department. In the run-up to this week’s elections, the ANC-led municipality awarded the “MK vets” 100% salary increases, sparking the latest protest action.

This took place amid Africa’s biggest international tourism conference, the Tourism Indaba, taking place in Durban.

A senior official in DSW said bad mechanical design of the Mahatma Gandhi Pump Station was the root cause of the problem.

On Friday morning people were still bathing and signage on the beaches were giving mixed messages, with some indicating a problem and other signs saying the water was safe. A red flag warning people not to swim was also flying, but to the naked eye the sea does not look polluted.

UPDATE at 14:16 on 10 May - The City has released the following statement:


Diving operations are cautioned against operating in the Port of Durban following the failure of a number of pumps at the Mahatma Gandhi Pump Station which has resulted in approximately 20% of the flow discharging into the Harbour at Lavender Creek.

An investigation into the matter by Water and Sanitation has identified the main cause of the pump failures is the failure of the mechanical rakes at the entrance to the pump station allowing an ever increasing amount of foreign objects to enter the pumping system. This resulted in the pumps tripping and failing mechanically. The mechanical rakes have been repaired.

Due to the foreign objects entering the pumps the pumps became imbalanced and the consequential vibration caused the pumps to fail mechanically. The pumps are fully imported and consequently their spares parts are not available locally which has caused a delay in repairing the pumps.

The Municipality is embarking on a process to dose the overflow and aerate the polluted area until the repaired pump is reinstalled and the spill averted. The expected installation date is Monday 13th May 2019.

In the interim we plead with residents, tourists and business owners to refrain from getting in contact with the contaminated water until communications to do otherwise is issued.

Not all the signs on North Beach are giving the same message. Photo: Fred Kockott

Produced for GroundUp by Roving Reporters (

TOPICS:  Environment

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