Measured in terms of biodiversity, the Knysna estuary is the most important estuary in South Africa. As a recreational resource, it is also the core of our tourist industry, which drives our local economy.
But estuarine health has been badly neglected for many years.
Our poorly maintained, polluting wastewater treatment works (“WWTW”) does not have a valid discharge permit and has regularly exceeded special standards for chlorine, conductivity, chemical oxygen demand and ammonia. The Department of Water and Sanitation and the Department of Environmental Affairs are expected to issue directives, due to long-standing non-compliance. In addition, the current design of the WWTW fails to provide for the removal of two major pollutants: nitrogen and phosphorus.
The WWTW is estimated to be 30% over capacity, and the scores of illegal connections that channel stormwater into our sewage system swamp the works with an estimated 7-10 times normal influent during heavy rains, overwhelming it and causing improperly treated sewage to flow into the Ashmead Channel, which is now anoxic (dead) and may be beyond saving. People thoughtlessly flush rags and cloths, sanitary pads and tampons, disposable nappies, condoms, chip packets, and cigarette butts down their toilets, clogging the screens and the machinery in the WWTW and preventing it from processing sewage.
During exceptionally high spring tides, septic tanks located too close to the water’s edge flood and their content then seeps into the estuary as the waters recede. Bathing on an outgoing tide during these periods, and after heavy rains, is not recommended.
Solving these problems will require a multi-pronged attack: a) upgrade the WWTW to bring it into compliance and eliminate pollutants from the effluent, b) outsource WWTW maintenance and management under an appropriate service delivery agreement, c) identify and eliminate all illegal rainwater connections to the sewage system, d) educate residents about what not to flush down toilets, e) eliminate all other sources of untreated human and animal waste flowing into the estuary through the Bongani stream and the many polluted culverts that run through town, and f) fund and build a new, modular sewage plant at a location far removed from the estuary, which converts sewage to potable water, thus helping to alleviate our perennial water shortage.
The Estuary Pollution Committee, which has broad representatjon from all stakeholders, is driving efforts to achieve these goals. Thanks to the appointment of a new, highly competent environmental manager, there is now real hope that these longstanding problems can be resolved. But too much time has been wasted in the last decade. And it will take a lot of money and a sustained effort to reverse the downward spiral. As Dutch consultant Jan van der Kok pointed out in his timely report, the time for studies is over.
But at the last Council meeting, on 25 January, Council again passed the buck. The discussion of how best to stop the ongoing pollution of the estuary by the WWTW was so confused as to be barely comprehensible, and the disposition of the agenda item—referring the matter to the Technical Services Department for action—merely ratifies the woeful status quo.
This is the department that has been in charge of the WWTW throughout the period in which pollution of the estuary ran out of control. This is the department that consistently requires the intervention if outside contractors to attempt to bring the WWTW into some kind of compliance with the applicable standards, because it has never been given the skilled personnel it needs to do it itself. And the employment contract of the current Technical Services Department’s director is due to expire in only a few months’ time.
Council still does not understand how urgent this problem has become. And once again, Council has failed to assume its responsibilities as the steward of our town’s most precious natural resource, around which our entire local economy is built. How much longer will this neglect of the Knysna estuary be allowed to continue?