The Poo Tsunami



The waste water infrastructure servicing the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality appears to be in the process of collapsing.

There has been much publicity concerning the latest sewage disasters to strike the area; these include:

  • numerous breakages in the sewers running down to the Fishwater Flats Waste Water Treatment Works from the massive Motherwell Township, resulting in 30 mega-litres of raw sewage flooding the Swartkops River every week over the November – January period;
  • raw sewage running through Swartkops Village to the extent that the municipal slipway at  Tiger Bay had to be closed;
  • the recent eruption of sewage opposite the entrance to Fishwater Flats, which formed lakes of foul water on both sides of the M19 at the John Tallant crossroads, before finding its way into the Swartkops;
  • allegations of raw sewage flowing into the sea from the Papenkuils canal;
  • allegations of raw sewage escaping into the Baakens River;
  • evidence of untreated sewage being pumped directly into the sea from Fishwater Flats – yachtsmen report sailing through poo when venturing close inshore, and there are said to be aerial photographs of the waste water pouring into the sea;
  • frequent spills into the upper Swartkops River from the Kelvin Jones sewage works in Uitenhage.

However, comments from concerned citizens in the social media reveal that there are probably a lot more streams and ponds in the Metro that suffer from sewage leaks and other forms of toxic wastewater.

All the evidence points to an aging infrastructure buckling under a volume of sewage for which it was never designed.

It was stated that the upgrading of Fishwater Flats, currently underway, would provide capacity to handle the expected increase from existing sources for the next forty years i.e. capacity is reached in 2050.

But there is a currently a plan afoot to create an entirely new sewer system running from the Northern Suburbs into Fishwater Flats; this rings all sorts of warning bells.

If Fishwater Flats only has capacity to handle the current load until 2050, then a massive new sewer system is most definitely going to reduce that capacity considerably.

Heavy rainfall results seems to increase the flow entering Fishwater Flats and, inevitably, the excess is pumped into the Bay along with raw sewage. A new sewer system is going to increase storm water volumes.

It is the height of ecological folly to pump raw sewage into the Bay whenever the volume is too great for comfort, just because you can.

It seems obvious that Fishwater Flats has a finite life, under the best of circumstances.

There are however, other dangers which should be considered.

The Metro has already released information about so-called “set-back” lines, which take into account a one metre rise in ocean level over the rest of this century; according to National Geographic, this could be a conservative estimate; recent studies indicate a rise of between 0.8 and 2 metres; if the Greenland Ice Sheet melts entirely, expect seven metres.

One metre doesn’t sound particularly alarming right now; after all, that’s only about 12.5mm every ten years. Not that there is any guarantee that the ocean will rise at this gentle rate without throwing a wobbly from time to time.

On at least two occasions during the last twenty years the N2 running past Fishwater Flats has been closed while storm debris has been cleaned up – sand and stones flung across the road by waves breaking over the dolosse.

You may remember the event in September 2008 when waves broke over the sea wall near Sidon Street and ran into Paterson Road.

There is a strong probability that at some stage we are going to experience a storm surge that will breach the N3 barrier between the sea and Fishwater Flats, which is a mere 300 metres from the shoreline.

What happens when the sea decides to retaliate and pumps salt water back into the treatment works?

Perhaps the architects of the Fishwater Flats idea may be forgiven for their lack of vision; fifty years ago environmental conservation was not top of the list for town planners; pouring poo into the sea was common all over the world – it still is; and they obviously did not foresee a massive increase in population.

Even less could they have foreseen a situation where the local authority responsible for maintenance would be stripped of expertise for political reasons, resulting in a maintenance regime which has to rely on private contractors operating in what appears to be a permanent climate of crisis as they battle to plug the holes in aging sewers.

Port Elizabeth is not alone; all around the world cities are sinking in excreta as aging infrastructure crumbles; that gives us no excuse to avoid dealing with our own problem.

What it does give us is a marvellous opportunity to rebuild our sewage infrastructure using the most modern methods.

Imagine a situation where we have a number of modern waste water plants developed using the Nereda technology which has been implemented so successfully at Gansbaai and Wemmershoek in the Western Cape?

This modern system is making inroads all over the world; the treatment plants take up less space, use a lot less energy and construction costs are around 20% lower than old fashioned plants.

Imagine a situation where a number of such plants were established with the metropolitan area, situated inland and well away from our rivers and streams.

The advantages include:

  • lower maintenance costs as each plant would service just its section of the Metro, thus avoiding lengthy sewer lines and the pump stations necessary to prevent expensive blockages
  • grey water recovery for agriculture which could be established close to the plants; we are after all a water scarce country
  • a boost to our construction industry
  • generation of energy from methane produced during sewage treatment
  • creation of agricultural jobs in the farming clusters close to the plants
  • the salvation of our rivers from their present seriously endangered state
  • a pristine Algoa Bay, free from manmade pollution.

The perils of not addressing the problem include:

  • Greater incidence of disease amongst the population, particularly those exposed to streams of sewage; cholera, typhoid and dysentery are just the more obvious results of contact with untreated sewage
  • Increasing incidence of infrastructure failure, resulting in ever increasing maintenance costs;
  • The final destruction of our rivers
  • Increasing pollution of Algoa Bay, making a mockery of its position as a “Hope” spot as recently aired in the Press

Not to mention the curses of future generations on the souls of their forefathers for leaving them in a veritable “s***hole”!

No doubt the question of funding will be raised; the answer to that question is “Never confuse Principle with Cost”.

We do not have the right to leave an environmental disaster to the care of future generations.

We do have the responsibility to fix our problems before they become someone else’s.

Let Nelson Mandela Bay become an example to the rest of Africa on how to handle a very smelly problem.




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