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Zeekoevlei activists lock horns with DA’s mayoral candidate over pollution

Mayoral candidate Geordin Hill-Lewis promises to end City’s “culture of secrecy”

The DA’s mayoral candidate for Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, was given short thrift by concerned citizens when he suggested Zeekoevlei is polluted with sewage partly due to people blocking sewers with foreign objects.

Hill-Lewis undertook a community meeting at the vlei on 20 October to hear residents’ concerns following the closure of the vlei since 15 July due to sewage pollution. The vlei, situated next to Grassy Park, is home to the UCT rowing club and others, and a popular recreational destination. Cape Town’s other popular recreational inland water bodies, Zandvlei and Rietvlei, have also been closed for months due to ongoing sewage pollution. Milnerton Lagoon has been closed for over a year for the same reason.

The Friends of Zeekoevlei & Rondevlei (FZR) have been active in reporting sewage overflows and investigating the causes of pollution at the vlei.

A pre-directive was issued to the City by the province’s Green Scorpions on 21 July, said FZR vice chairperson Tom Schwerdtfeger. The pre-directive, which is essentially a warning before a directive is issued, was to get the screw pumps at the Cape Flats Wastewater Treatment Works working, and another pre-directive was issued to stop sewage flowing into the vlei from the Big Lotus River.

“Three months later and we’re still in exactly the same position,” said Schwerdtfeger, with Zeekoevlei being polluted by sewage backup from the adjacent wastewater treatment works.

Resident Peter Koornhof said the problem was the wastewater treatment works was not being maintained. There are four screw pumps to pump the sewage into the treatment system, but only one was working.

Zeekoevlei Peninsula Watch director Andy Chisholm said the people working at the wastewater treatment works were “fantastic” and “dedicated” but they received no support from the City. Fellow peninsula watch director Susanne Karcher said the workers at the Cape Flats treatment plant had been trying to get the City to procure spare parts, but the City “hates emergency procurement because it looks bad to the Auditor-General”.

“We need emergency budgets in place. They knew a screw pump was breaking down and didn’t do anything, causing a catastrophe that could’ve been avoided.”

As Zeekoevlie and Rondevlei are adjacent to the wastewater treatment works, if it is unable to process the 200 million litres of sewage it is supposed to treat per day, it backs up and flows into the vleis.

UCT professor Leslie Green said she was in possession of photographs sent by a staff member at the treatment works showing equipment worth R36m that was delivered three years ago but was still in the plastic covering it was delivered in. Green and Hill-Lewis got into a heated discussion about the City blaming poor communities for causing sewage spills by blocking sewers, when the pollution of Zeekoevlei was due to failures at the City-run wastewater treatment plant.

Hill-Lewis said he was also against emergency procurement as it opened the door to corruption in the supply chain management system. He said the solution was to give engineers a planning budget so they could have spare parts on hand when needed.

He also responded to frustrations expressed by civil society watchdogs at all waterbodies within the city at the lack of publication of the City’s water quality test results, and the City water and sanitation department’s lack of communication over the causes of pollution and plans to deal with the ongoing problem. The political head of the responsible department, water and waste mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg, is number three on the City’s list of proportional representative candidates for the upcoming local government elections.

“Where there is an attitude of secrecy or locked doors, I’m here to tell you it is not the standard we set for ourselves and would like to hear about it personally,” said Hill-Lewis.

He said the City must “own up to any lapses and fix them over time”.

“There should be a culture of openness and transparency over management of water bodies. Where there is not, it is not in the spirit of the City’s governance.”

He acknowledged that gaining environmental activists’ trust would take “a long time”.

On 27 October FZR chair Sidney Jacobs said he was pleased to see the City had since employed a contractor to fix the litter traps in the Big Lotus River, which was a major source of pollution for the vlei.