It has been widely reported that there is raw sewage ‘spills’ consuming the ocean and its marine life in and around Cape Town.
Some have said that sewage has been dumped there for over 30 years. The question remains; why. Here’s what we know about the sewage ‘spills.’
Sewage ‘spills’ in Cape Town
Marine Conservation Photographer, Jean Tresfon says that the word ‘spill’ can be misleading, suggesting that it’s an accident or infrequent occurrence.
“The reality is that through the three marine outfalls on the Atlantic Seaboard, the city pumps an average of 36.5m litres of untreated raw sewage into the ocean every single day,” he said.
National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) CEO, Cleeve Robertson said he was involved as an activist in objecting to both the Green Point and Hout Bay sewage outfalls.
“We predicted then that the outfalls were inadequate and that there would be severe pollution in the medium term. Arthur Clayton was the City Engineer and denied that there would be a problem, not appreciating the massive increase in volumes over 30 years,” said Robertson.
“I was diving off Camps Bay when I swam into a vertical thermocline (vertical separation between warm/fresh sewage in freshwater and saltwater) caused by the discharge from the Camps Bay sewage pipe. Mike Marsden (eventually the City Engineer) was a member of our diving club and when I told him, he denied that it was sewage. It was sewage!” said Robertson.
Marine photographer turned activist
Tresfon has been conducting regular marine survey flights around the peninsula since 2011 and often noticed large white plumes on the sea surface, always in the same areas.
“I did some research and found information on the outfalls on the City’s (City of Cape Town) own website. I was astounded to find that there is zero primary or secondary treatment of the effluent before it is pumped out to sea in a completely raw state,” said Tresfon.
“I posted a few images on social media at the time but had very little response. Partly this was due to people just not believing that their city could dump raw sewage in the ocean,” explained Tresfon.
“In 2015 I took a classic aerial tourist photo of Cape Town with the iconic Table Mountain as a backdrop and the image featured a massive 5km-long sewage plume in the foreground. That image got people’s attention and the issue started to make headlines,” added Tresfon.
Which areas are affected by the sewage ‘spills’
Robertson said that many areas are affected within Cape Town.
He knows this not only from NSRI work but because he scuba dives too. Referring to the sewage in the ocean, Robertson said: “It’s disgusting!”
Robertson said Hout Bay is severely polluted. “Diving on the wrecks of the Katsu Maru and Aster in the centre of the bay are seldom possible in clean water. The seagulls sit on the plume as it rises to the surface stinking of chlorine,” he said.
“At Camps Bay, you can see the greywater moving in on Maidens Cove, into Glen Beach and then across Camps Bay. In Green Point, the sewage rises to the surface like in Hout Bay and travels down the coast along the beaches. People don’t realise they are swimming in sewage,” added Robertson.
Here’s how the sewage lands up in the ocean
According to Tresfon, the effluent is passed through a screen to remove larger contaminants like sanitary towels and nappies and then pumped into the ocean.
These plants often suffer breakdowns from poor maintenance and/or load shedding and in both these cases, the raw sewage coming into the plant is simply diverted into the river system.
“When the wind blows from the northwest, as it does for most of the winter, the sewage blows straight back to shore. Then we have various sewage treatment plants where the effluent is released into water bodies such as the Diep River (Milnerton Lagoon) and ZeekoeiVlei to name just two of many,” said Tresfon.
Raw sewage affecting our health
Cleeve said that independent scientists have tested the water and it showed excessive levels of pollution E.Coli bacteria.
“It is difficult to link disease of a population to the sewage but it is possible and probable that people are becoming ill. There was an incident at Riet Vlei in Milnerton where a paddler died after developing an infection from the Milnerton Lagoon,” said Robertson.
“The only measurement people talk about is the E.Coli level but what about all the chemical pollution?” asked Robertson.
Who is responsible for the sewage ‘spills’ in the ocean?
When asked who he thinks is responsible for the dumping of raw sewage into our oceans, Tresfon said that it would be unfair to blame the City of Cape Town completely.
“National Government’s Department of Water and Sanitation carries certain responsibilities. Then there is the Provincial Government and the City that both carry the responsibility as well,” said Tresfon.
“My experience from dealing with all three over the last few years is that very few people in charge of this issue have any real interest in dealing with it. As said previously it all comes back to money. With many pressing issues facing the City and declining budgets through reduced tax collection and stolen funds, they have to choose where to spend the money,” explained Tresfon.
When asked the question of who is responsible, Robertson said: “I’m not certain of the legislation but Constitutionally we have a right to a healthy environment and all spheres of Government, National, Provincial and Local have a responsibility to protect those rights. In this case, the City of Cape Town is closer to the coal face interventions but the Province and Department of Environmental Affairs, have roles to play.”
What should be done to combat the issue?
Tresfon said that In terms of the outfalls, the treatment plants need to be built and the effluent treated to at least secondary level before it gets pumped out to sea. In terms of the river-based sewage plants, he said there needs to be proper maintenance on a regular basis and some form of protection from load shedding, such as backup generator plants.
“This stuff is not rocket science but it’s all about money. It’s cheaper to pump sewage into our water bodies than actually treat it. Assuming the current levels are not harming the ocean (which I don’t believe for a second) the levels will increase exponentially with the population growth,” said Tresfon.
“I want the public to be aware of the problem, otherwise, it remains out of sight and out of mind,” added Tresfon.
Robertson said that sewage should be used to recover the water. “The solids should be removed and treated to absorb toxins. This will cost money but it’s essential,” he said.
Dumped into our oceans for over 30 years
Tresfon said the outfalls have been discharging their sewage into the ocean for well over 30 years.
“The amount of sewage increases exponentially with population growth and is no longer sustainable,” he said.
Robertson said he was the Chairman of the Atlantic Underwater Club in the late 1980s and ’90s and he was a Diving Medical Physician working at Somerset Hospital at the same time.
During this period, he was involved in treating divers working on the Green Point Sewage Pipeline Project, who developed infections e.g. Pneumonia, from inhaling (aspirating) water through the use of open circuit SCUBA equipment. This proves that sewage was dumped into the ocean surrounding Cape Town, long before most of us thought.
To get involved in the clean up of ocean surrounding Cape Town
The public can do their best to ensure the coastline is kept clean by participating in beach cleanups and supporting organisations like the Two Oceans Aquarium and SANCCOB.
“Sadly there’s not a lot we can do directly to help the sewage situation other than by putting pressure on the authorities to do their jobs,” said Tresfon.
Numerous attempts were made to contact the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Department of Water and Sanitation for comment at the time of publication. They are yet to respond to queries.