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Bond, Patrick  (2012) Durban’s dirty water and sanitation cesspools. Eye on Civil Society : -.

Chatter at this week’s World Toilet Summit at the International Convention Centre will include some gossip we should quickly flush out – but not into the sea where far too much of Durban’s poisonous liquid already flows.

First is the rumour, fed by media hysteria, that drinking increasingly grey water is bad for us. As the city begins to mix recycled city sewage with river supply from the mercury-contaminated Inanda Dam (where signs warn against eating fish) and other E.coli-infected streams, will we end up as ill and thirsty as those unfortunate citizens of Carolina?

There and in other Mpumalanga dorpies, Acid Mine Drainage and related toxic effluent from coal mining corporations continue unveiling the incompetence and crony-capitalism within our national environment ministry, a feature also on display at this week’s COP18 climate summit in Doha which resurrects last year’s disastrous ‘Durban Platform’ from the COP17.

As for Durban tap-water quality, no, I don’t think there’s any worry, and still have no qualms about ordering my restaurant water straight from the tap. There are greater hazards associated with drinking bottled water. Not only do petrochemical residues rub off inside your plastic bottle (see the free film for gory details).

The bottles also clog landfills and their petroleum inputs soil the air here in South Durban, where Merebank children have the world’s worst recorded asthma rate, at Settlers Primary School. The Engen refinery and BP/Shell’s Sapref complex act like a massive pollution pincer on the kids’ young lungs. Last week, even the slobs at the US Environmental Protection Agency deemed BP – ‘Beyond Petroleum’ (hah) – such a filthy rogue that it may no longer bid for new oil leases there.

The second bit of malevolent gossip concerns the well-known water manager who runs Durban’s municipal system, Neil Macleod. Last month he was charged with corruption by his subordinates (whom he was investigating for the same crime). This came just at the moment that former city manager Mike Sutcliffe apparently intimidated his successor S’bu Sithole into out-of-court-settlement talks over corruption libel which may leave taxpayers shelling out millions to featherbed Sutcliffe’s ‘reputation’.

Although the Manase Report into Durban corruption remains a state secret, in both the Macleod and Sutcliffe cases, I’m convinced that they are being unfairly maligned.

How, then, might we more fairly malign these men, not personally of course, but for society-corrupting, health-threatening, ecologically-destructive sanitation policies on their watch? The most obvious evidence is the city’s repeated embarrassment at reports of high E.coli and toxin levels in the rivers feeding the ocean, especially after rains, leading to the loss of our international Blue Flag status at the ten Durban beaches four years ago.

The primary cause is Macleod’s persistent failure to address the vast sanitation backlog in more than 100 shack settlements, municipal services for which Sutcliffe refused to authorize because of their informal property-rights status. Most have only a few poorly- (or just un-) maintained toilets, in some cases as few as one per 500 residents.

As a result of loose excrement, E.coli flows into our streams at a rate far higher than the recommended ‘safe’ level of 100 parts per 100ml. The 2010 State of the Rivers Report found the E.coli count in the “uMngeni River at Kennedy Road, up to 1,080,000. Cause: Informal Community on the banks of the Palmiet River.”

Five years ago, Macleod predicted to Science magazine that by 2010, “everyone [would have] access to a proper toilet,” while in reality, hundreds of thousands do not, today.

Sanitation experts visiting Durban this week may rebut that the world cannot afford 12-liter flushes for everyone, and that we must embrace some version of low-water toilets here. (I agree, bio-gas digesters would be a fine compromise.)

Yet community critics regularly tell us that Durban’s water-less ‘Urinary Diversion’ and ‘Ventilated Improved Pitlatrine’ strategies are failing, and if the municipality possessed a genuinely green consciousness, then middle- and upper-class areas would have such pilot projects – not just tens of thousands provided in the city’s low-income periphery.

I flush a few times each day and pay a small premium: more than Durban’s poor can afford, but still not enough. Many readers of this column could cross-subsidise low-income Durban by paying more for the privileges of filling swimming pools and bathtubs, watering gardens, running washing machines and all the other liquid luxuries we enjoy.

If we paid more to deter hedonistic water consumption, and if Macleod adjusted tariffs downwards accordingly for poor people, then Durban would not be South Africa’s second stingiest city (after Pietermaritzburg), according to the Wits University Centre for Applied Legal Studies. Then more funds could be raised to build decent sanitation across the city and repair the sewage pipes whose cracks regularly infect our rivers and harbor.

After so much White Elephant infrastructure was built for the 2010 World Cup, no one can claim that construction capability or subsidized funding are lacking. What’s missing is political power by poor people; and what will continue to result is toilet-apartheid.

Patrick Bond directs the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society.

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