Paddling in poo!

I have always thought that paddlers are far more sensible than runners – why brave Pietermaritzburg’s drivers when one can meander safely down the Msunduzi and uMngeni Rivers? The Midlands canoeing fraternity appears to be a particularly sensible and well organised bunch – I am a friend and colleague of many and even related to a few. Many hold down business, professional and academic leadership positions, keep fit, and get out into and enjoy natural areas. They are also the originators and supporters of such noble causes as DUCT and highly successful development programmes that have transformed canoeing.

But recently I have had reason to call into question the wisdom of the canoeing administrators; the recreational, development and professional paddlers; the parents of school-going paddlers; the coaches of these paddlers, and the pupils themselves – the entire Midlands paddling community.

Why do I say this? I present as evidence this graph courtesy of Umgeni Water. What it shows is the steady deterioration in water quality in the Msunduzi River over the last eighteen years.


The second piece of evidence I present is a quote from the uMngeni Water scientist who compiled this graph. He refers to water quality at Camps Drift this week: anyone using the water there for recreation is at potentially significant risk if they have too much “direct contact”.

All this is common knowledge, as is the cause: a steadily deteriorating sewer and stormwater system. Actually, this is a symptom of a broader management failure within local government. It is also common knowledge that these concentrations of E.coli and associated gastro-intestinal pathogens make you ill – very ill. As an aside, there was a rather ironic celebration recently when concentrations of E.coli exceeding 1 million per 10 ml of water were detected in the Baynespruit, the stream that flows through Willowton into the Msunduzi. A mouthful of that will make you very ill – it might even kill you.

I understand that following this year’s Dusi about 60% of the field fell ill, that many of the paddlers who did not get sick took antibiotics as a prophylaxis before they paddled, and that recently some paddlers from a prestigious local school were hospitalised with an unusual viral infection which originated in one of our rivers or dams.

Despite this, the canoeing administrators are promoting Camps Drift as the venue for next year’s world sprint canoe championships; our sharpest legal, financial, science, business, agricultural and student minds happily dice, race and train on the river, and parents and coaches are quite happy to let pupils loose on and in the system. This is just plain crazy, and that regulators allow any recreational use of the Msunduzi at all renders them complicit in this craziness.

But for me, the greatest concern is that this situation is apparently condoned. I know the DUCT people, the PCB and some administrators are working valiantly behind the scenes to influence decision-makers but, apart from that, I see nothing – no public outrage, no rejection of the situation, no toyi-toying, no legal action – just passive acceptance and feigned ignorance. This is not the behaviour I would associate with intelligent and engaged people with a vested interest in preserving their sport and recreational interests.

There is a bottom-line here – quiet diplomacy will only get you so far. The time has come to mobilise, to dump a few broken canoes on the steps of City Hall, to speak truth to power, to act.

Duncan Hay is Executive Director of the Institute of Natural Resources. A verison of this article originally appeared in the Natal Witness on 23 November.