Africa’s oldest open-water swimming event, the Spar Redhouse River Mile, is in jeopardy due to toxic levels of human waste in the Swartkops River.

“The water quality is totally unacceptable at the moment and unlikely to improve over the next month,” says race organiser, Mike Zoetmulder of Zports in Port Elizabeth. “Therefore, for the safety of our participants, we cannot go ahead.”

Zoetmulder says they are “exploring” other options in order to save the 86th edition of the event, including relocating it to the Gamtoos River.

He says the pollution issue has been addressed with the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro over the past 18 months and to date it appears that no action has been taken.

“The pollution levels show chronic, off the chart spikes that are becoming more frequent,” says Zoetmulder. He says the situation is being exacerbated by the ongoing drought.

According to Jenny Rump, environmental officer at the Zwartkops Trust (ZT), the problem emanates from raw sewage flowing into the river and estuary – with the Motherwell storm water canal being the main culprit.

“There are also serious sewage leaks in the upper Swartkops-area above Perseverance. We are aware of leaks in the pipelines on both sides of the Kelvin Jones Water Reclamation Works in Uitenhage.”

Rump blames this on a lack of maintenance by the municipality.

Although the metro monitors the quality of the water, the ZT – a voluntary body established in 1968 with the objective of preserving the river and estuary – is now conducting its own tests.

Readings from samples taken in the upper Swartkops-area (Uitenhage and Despatch) on January 16 confirm “very high” levels of faecal coli, according to chemistry expert and ZT vice-chairman Dr Hugh Laue.

“We took one-off samples at Uitenhage and Despatch and the counts were over 2 000 and 800 respectively.” He says they are awaiting results from samples taken in the Redhouse-area on January 21.

Laue says, in terms of legislation, waste water or effluent shall contain zero typical (faecal) coli per 100 millilitres. He says faecal coli are bacteria that originate from faeces.

“There are several forms, but we are isolating the Escherichia coli (E. coli) numbers.”

Laue says the average E. coli counts (per 100ml) in samples taken by the metro during November last year were: upper Perseverance 158 (maximum 950), lower Perseverance 94 (300), Redhouse 29 (200), Motherwell canal 33 547 (120 000), Brickfields Village 2 319 (11 300) and Swartkops 294 (2 000).

He says the health risk is due to sewage possibly containing pathogens and viruses that cause diseases, some of which could be fatal.

Rump says she has been attending meetings of the Coastal Management Forum – which is chaired by the metro – on behalf of the ZT for the better part of two years and the problem has been discussed at length.

She says, according to media reports, a burst pipe at Kelvin Jones was responsible for the major fish kill in the Swartkops last September.

“At the suggestion of some frustrated metro officials, we actually wrote a letter to the mayor listing our concerns regarding ongoing sewage spills entering the Swartkops.

“It seems certain sections (of the metro) are guilty of not performing their tasks or are under capacitated and that other departments have little control over this.”

Rump says little has come of the letter – dated November 19, 2009 – other than the metro admitting that a spillage from Kelvin Jones did enter the river.

Zoetmulder says it is almost inconceivable that the future of the race is being threatened as a result of negligence. “Apart from World War II, the race has only been cancelled once (in 1971) and that was due to flooding.

“We strive to establish Nelson Mandela Bay as Africa’s watersport capital and all our events have the backing of the metro. I’m therefore convinced that the matter will be dealt with before next year’s race as I cannot see them continually neglecting our recreational water.”

With 970 participants last year, the Redhouse River Mile has shown a growth of more than 30 percent over the past two years.

According to Rump, Swartkops is considered one of the most important estuaries in the country. “It is a unique asset that is relatively well preserved considering it is within the metropolitan boundary.

“The health threat from ongoing sewage pollution is totally unacceptable.”

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Coetzee Gouws
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