Sewage matters under spotlight

A 2014 aerial picture of a plume of effluent as seen from the sky by marine conservation photographer Jean Tresfon.

A public presentation on sewage pollution organised by a proportional representation (PR) councillor who serves on the City of Cape Town’s Economic Growth Portfolio Committee, had more than 100 Camps Bay residents attending.

The presentation at Camps Bay High School, titled “The Bays of Sewage, on Thursday March 9 also had City representatives present.

Organiser Freedom Front Plus PR councillor Paul Jacobson, said it’s time to rethink the City’s sewage treatment options. “For unless we take the stink seriously and come up with solutions, Cape Town as an economic and tourist hub, will be doomed,” he said.

Over the past few years the Atlantic Sun has reported extensively on sewage concerns in the area (“Impact of sewage spills at Clifton beaches ’low’,” April 7, 2022, “Camps Bay marine outfall causes a stink”, February 11, 2022, “Seaboard sewage concerns”, September 2, 2021).

Specialists and activists informed the audience about the damaging effects of sewage that come from the Camps Bay marine outfall, commissioned in 1977, as well as the Green Point and Hout Bay outfalls that started operating in 1993.

Jean Tresfon, a marine conservation photographer, said in 2014 he posted aerial images of sewage plumes on social media and had little reaction from people, however, his presentation drew gasps of disbelief from the audience.

“You can see how this plume looks with the Mother City in the background, it gives you an idea of the size of this. These plumes of effluent are drifting into the bays and to the shores,” said Mr Tresfon.

He said when he first raised this issue in 2015 there was blatant denial from the then mayoral committee member for water and sanitation and City administration.

Mr Tresfon said later the City “admitted that the plumes were from the outfalls but said they were not harmful in any way.” “And it then changed as they said it’s only harmful in a localised area and it’s dissipated as it’s diluted in the ocean,” he said.

“The story changed again and we were told that the outfalls are not ideal but there’s no economically viable alternatives which we don’t believe to be true. The City needs to listen to us and we want to work with them,” he said.

Mark Jackson, a film-maker who in 2016 produced the short documentary Bay of Sewage, says he enquired about the cost to replace a marine outfall plant and that the City informed him that a feasibility study could be ready in June.

“I spoke to an engineer about a treatment plant that would cost about R80 to R150 million but we don’t want an open sewage plant here, we want a membrane bio reactor, and the figure he gave me is a R150 million-plus and I don’t know if it sounds a lot to you, but to me it doesn’t sound a lot, especially when you hear that the City has R7 billion in reserve,” Mr Jackson said.

He said when he enquired about sewage levies in 2015 he was told it’s R15 million a year. “The levies have gone up since then so it could be about R20 million a year. When it comes to sewage levies I’ve been told that they need to spend that money they collect on the services we’re paying for. But people are paying for sewage treatment and it’s being pumped out to sea, so I think the City actually owes us.”

Dr Cleeve Robertson, the chief executive officer of the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), says that surfers, windsurfers and scuba divers are facing health hazards when they partake in recreational activities due to aerosolised sewage.

“In the 1980s and early 90s I was a medical officer at Somerset Hospital and I treated divers who worked on the Green Point pipeline project for atypical pneumonias, like micro plasma which are almost never found and this was because of the aerosolised sewage they were inhaling while working on this project. This aerosolisation and ingestion can happen during any one of the recreational activities that I mentioned. Gastrointestinal diseases, skin rashes and inhalation diseases are very real and no research has been done on this since 1992,” he said.

Dr Jo Barnes, the senior lecturer emeritus in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University, says that the effects of sewage is reflective of the diseases present in that area, and that antibiotic resistance is on the increase.

“The United Nations just two weeks ago released a report regarding antibiotic resistance that is connected to sewage pollution of the environment. Whatever you eat or drink, whatever diseases you have and whatever medicines you take are excreted into the sewage and so there are antibiotic resistant genes that are forming and it’s affecting other organisms. Now micro-biological organisms do not persist for a long time but they do multiply fast, they replace themselves, and antibiotic resistant genes are passed on and we are losing our ability (in hospitals) to treat infections,” said Dr Barnes.

Dr Barnes pointed out that aerosol droplets can spread from one region to another (giving an example of a study in Mexico to the USA) and that it can cause respiratory infections.

“Aerosols are carried by air and you can get sick just by walking at the beach and you won’t even think that it happened because of that walk at the beach,” she said.

Mr Jacobson said there is more to come as they tackle the City about this scourge. “We want to enlighten the public and we alerted the press so that we can put pressure on the City. The City needs to acknowledge this problem and engage with the experts who are giving their expertise and knowledge voluntarily, we all want to work with the City,” said Mr Jacobson.

Alex Lansdowne, the deputy chairperson for the Mayoral Advisory Committee on Water Quality in Wetlands and Waterways and a member on the portfolio committee on Spatial Planning and Environment, says they are looking at the biggest structural polluters with the aim of improving the water quality.

“At a council meeting in March we will be voting to approve a R5.2 billion upgrade to one of the biggest polluters which is the Potsdam treatment works which goes into the Milnerton Lagoon,” he said.

In December the City said sewer spills affecting coastal areas highlight the challenges brought about by continued high stages of load shedding on the City’s water and sanitation infrastructure. The City’s sewer pump stations need electricity to function effectively and convey sewage to Wastewater Treatment Plants where it can be treated.

The City approved a seven-fold budget increase to upgrade pump stations and boost protection from load shedding and illegal dumping into the sewer system. Big capital budget increases for sewer pump stations are planned under the Mayoral Priority Programme for water and sanitation, from R70 million in 2022, ramping up to R400 million in 2024, and R500 million in 2025.

By June this year the City will have installed permanent generators at 110 priority sewer pump stations requiring generation capacity, with around 30 more earmarked for installations. All 26 wastewater treatment plants already have permanent generators.

Cape Town has further installed early warning telemetric alarm systems at all 487 sewer pump stations to help detect faults.