Code Red: Swimming in sea along Cape Town’s coastline ‘like playing Russian Roulette’
Cape Town's 'Red Flag' beaches: Health risks for swimmers are caused by failing pump stations, sewage spilling into the sea and pollution.
The picturesque Camps Bay beach has been deemed safe to swim at by the City of Cape Town, although both Camps Bay tidal pools have been ‘red-labelled’ due to sewage spills. Photo: iStock
Hold on to your swimming goggles … Judging by the latest assessment of the water quality of beaches and tidal pools in Cape Town, holidaymakers should rather err on the side of caution and avoid taking a festive splash at the several “red-labelled” beaches dotted along the Mother City’s coastline.
Code Red for these Cape Town beaches…
Fish Hoek Beach, Strand Beach, Hout Bay Beach, and both Camps Bay tidal pools, have been labelled in red in the City’s coastal water quality review, indicating a health risk due to an elevated bacteria count.
Central False Bay, Lagoon beach (Milnerton), Macassar to Gordon’s Bay, and Three Anchor Bay beach have been plagued by persistent water quality problems.
The City conducts regular water testing at 99 coastal sites to determine the water quality at recreational beaches, tidal pools and coastal monitoring points. The results are then categorised as excellent, good, sufficient or poor.
Despite these dismal results, the City’s coastal management manager, Greg Oelofse, said that while E. coli levels along Cape Town’s coastline varied, the general quality of the water remained “relatively good”.
‘Playing Russian roulette’
However, according to water treatment expert Emeritus Professor Leslie Petrik from the Department of Chemistry at the University of the Western Cape, swimming in the sea along Cape Town’s coastline these days is “like playing Russian roulette”.
Petrik told Cape Town Etc that the significant health risks for swimmers at these “red labelled” beaches arise from a combination of failing pump stations, sewage spilling into the sea and pollution.
She pointed out that one just needs to consult the City’s coastal reports to observe how frequently the beaches and recreational areas, including tidal pools, fail to meet the required safety criteria.
Cape Town’s most popular beaches ‘excellent’ water quality
In light of the latest results and Petrik’s warning, a statement by Deputy Mayor and Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Eddie Andrews, that “Cape Town’s most popular beaches display excellent water quality results ahead of the festive season”, is confusing to say the least.
This was based on an independent analysis of water samples taken over the past seven weeks, the latest on 15 November, Andrews said.
Daily Maverick, however, pointed out that the results as of 8 November – the latest data available on the city’s water quality dashboard – show concerning water quality data at some of these beaches and tidal pools.
Land-based pollution cause variable results in these Cape Town areas
Andrews did reveal that there are areas in Cape Town where land-based pollution impacted on the shoreline more regularly and might cause more variable results.
Areas where this was a problem, included:
- Diep River estuary mouth and adjacent Lagoon beach;
- Disa River mouth in Hout Bay;
- Else River mouth in Glencairn;
- Silvermine River mouth in Clovelly; and
- Gordon’s Bay River.
The city says the bad results from the review are almost always due to a localised issue at the sampling site.
What about Camps Bay beach and tidal pools?
For example, at Camps Bay Tidal Pool A, the sampling point is next to a sewage pump station outlet, which is part of the ablution building in the middle of the tidal pool.
Camps Bay beach is classified as “good” despite its close proximity.
The beach was one of eight in Cape Town that were recently awarded Blue Flag status by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa) for meeting stringent criteria related to water quality, environmental management and safety services.
Petrik begged to differ, telling Daily Maverick that the water quality at Camps Bay beach was questionable due to frequent sewage spills and other pollutants being discharged at the beach.
Look out for warning signs, but…
Oelofse said that beachgoers should look out for warning signs that will indicate the safety status of swimming.
“We never can say that the water’s 100% safe for swimming. That’s because it’s an urban environment, there are sources of pollution and there’s variability of risk.”
In response to Oelofse’s reference to warning signs, Caroline Marx, director of NPO Rethink the Stink and environmental head of the Milnerton Central Residents Association, had the following to say:
“The causes of the high pollution levels need to be resolved so that most beaches are zoned green as they were years ago.
“Signs don’t resolve the problem – they are also an attempt to transfer the risk from the city to the public. This is unfair, when the city is mandated to manage sewage in such a way that it does not pose a public health risk.”
Untreated sewage health risk: Hout Bay, Green Point and Camps Bay?
Petrik told Daily Maverick the untreated sewage discharged from the marine outfalls at Hout Bay, Green Point and Camps Bay had a detrimental effect on the water quality in these areas, endangering marine life, human health and the tourism industry.
The publication reported that this was corroborated by kayakers and surfers who claim they have experienced paddling in raw sewage, with used sanitary pads and condoms floating in the water.
However, the city said its environmental summary reports for each outfall, which were written by a team of marine experts using seven years’ worth of data, had determined none of the three outfalls caused National Coastal Water Quality Guidelines to be exceeded at any point on the shoreline.