Home-town Blues, Part 1: The tip of the iceberg

The Msunduzi River acting as a solid waste disposal
system (photograph courtesy of DUCT)

(This is the first in a series of two articles. I wish to thank Dr Julie Dyer and Steve Terry for providing me with invaluable insights.)

In 1898 the mortality rate in my home-town, Pietermaritzburg, stood at 19 deaths per thousand people and 30% of these deaths were from gastro-intestinal disease. There were also regular outbreaks of typhoid. The Mayor of the town, A.W. Kershaw remarked that “the pollution of the (Msunduzi) river from the City was so great as to render living within a few hundred yards of the lower banks almost unbearable”. Ten years on, in 1908, the mortality rate had halved, gastro-intestinal diseases had decreased and Maritzburg College, where my grandfather was being schooled, hosted swimming galas in the river! So, what happened? Quite simply, Pietermaritzburg had installed its first formal sewage system.

Fast forward to today, where do we find ourselves? In many ways we are back to where we were in 1898 but the situation is probably a little worse. The sewer infrastructure has not kept pace with the rapid development of the city and maintenance has been inadequate. So, we have a waste water works that is too small, and broken and blocked sewer pipes spewing raw sewage into adjacent rivers and streams. Actually, in some bizarre way the broken and blocked sewer pipes are a handy design feature because if all the sewage reached the waste water works it would not cope. With leaks all over the city the pollution load is being spread, and the river and its feeder streams are acting as an informal hardworking waste water works.

Sewage discharging directly into the Msunduzi River (photograph courtesy of DUCT)
Sewage discharging directly into the Msunduzi River
(photograph courtesy of DUCT)

There are a number of additional and associated problems. First, in the early days plumbing parts of the stormwater system into the sewage system was encouraged because it helped dilute and transport the sewage. That need has long passed but the practice has increased. Every time there is a major storm event the waste water works is flooded, the system breaks down and the raw sewage returns directly to the river. Second, the sewer system does not only transport sewage; it also carries legally and illegally discharged industrial effluent. Some of this reaches the waste water works where it clogs the system creating chaos. That which escapes pollutes our streams and river. Downstream, small-scale farmers can no longer irrigate their crops with river water and further downstream the water rapidly corrodes irrigation infrastructure used in sugarcane production.

Third, the sewage effluent is high in nutrients well-loved by alien invasive aquatic weeds – water hyacinth and others – which run rampant and clog the rivers and streams. Fourth, pathogen levels are high and the canoe paddlers training for and competing in one of the world’s most famous canoe marathons, the Dusi, suffer from a myriad of gastro-intestinal ailments including dysentery. Pre-race ingestion of preventative antibiotics has become the standard. What is the health impact on the broader population? We don’t know because, unlike in the early 1900s, we have become quite poor at record keeping. Finally, in both informal and formal settlements solid waste collection is erratic and so the river becomes the waste disposal system; place your trash bag in the river and it simply floats away!

What is presented here is a fairly depressing picture but these issues are largely consequences of deeper-seated causes. In the next article we will ‘submerge ourselves below the surface’ to explore these causes and suggest potential solutions. Solutions are urgent; in 2017 the world sprint canoe championships are scheduled to take place on the Msunduzi River! There is a lot to fix and not much time.