Canal cleanse on the cards

The canals in Masiphumelele with stagnant water.

The City has been ordered to clean up the filthy canals in Masiphumelele.

A serious health risks is posed by raw sewage stagnating in the canals which run through the area – where people live and cook, cheek by jowl with the contents of human effluence – and where little children play.

Last week, Dr Eshaam Palmer, director of Environmental Law Enforcement, issued the City of Cape Town with a directive to clean up the canals.

He said the lack of facilities was causing significant pollution and degradation to the environment and that this constituted a significant danger to the health and well-being of Masiphumelele residents.

The site visit was conducted on Thursday, January 19, on Erven CA 945-24 and CA 945-ORE and it was confirmed that the City had failed to provide adequate ablution, washing and stormwater management facilities, as well as adequate solid waste management practices.

Rosemary Milbank, a community activist, was jubilant at the directive.

It was Ms Milbank who had appealed for help, and days after the directive she visited Masiphumelele again.

“I drove out to see what the result was and needed to walk from the road, between shacks, to reach the beginning of the canal which
is between Section D and Section E. When I got out of my car, I
could smell the stench from the canal.

“As I made my way between the shacks I had to cover my face because of the stench and the flies,” she said.

She said she could then see that a form of cleaning had been done.

“The sides of the canal look better – rubbish has been collected (apparently using wheelbarrows) but no bins have been provided, so the source of that problem has not been solved,” she said.

She said the water in the canal is still filthy and the stench of sewage is horrific.

“Because the community have to use taps alongside the canal to do their laundry in buckets, and because there are no drains, they are forced to throw the dirty water into the canal,” she said.

“Also, because there are very few toilets in the area, the community are too afraid to walk to toilets at night; so they use buckets in their shacks – sometimes six people (including children) in each shack. These night buckets are then emptied into the canal because there is nowhere else to empty them,” she said.

The few toilets in the area are locked and not all residents have keys, Ms Milbank says.

“Superficial cleaning in order to quieten activists and the community will not fool us,” she said.

Ms Milbank said that soon the rainy season will arrive, and the canals will fill and overflow.

“The sewage contaminated water will once again flow into, and seep into people’s homes; and diseases will begin. We cannot allow this to happen and must prevent it before it is too late.”

Ms Milbank believes that the area should be evacuated immediately and the affected people should be moved to other – as present unoccupied – erfs.

Brian Nompunga, a resident in Masiphumelele, said: “The dirty canals are directly affecting everyone living around them. Though I don’t have facts about what kind of health hazards they are imposing on human life more especially children, it is a very bad experience for humans to live in such conditions,” he said.

“During hot days, you hardly get fresh air due to the smell that comes from those open dirty canals,” Mr Nompunga said.

“The shortage of clean toilets also add to canals being used as a dumping area for all kinds of dirt. I guess democracy is still very young to fulfil its promised objectives; such as to provide quality public services such as water, sanitation, electricity, etc, or to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person – and to build a united and democratic South Africa,” he said.

Dr Lutz van Dijk, founding co-director of the HOKISA Children’s Home, said that in March 2016 a comprehensive report about the health risks of living in the Masiphumelele informal settlement wetlands, including the contaminated canals, was sent to the South African Human Rights Commission.

“Therefore this time it must be taken seriously – and we will not accept if again the residents are blamed for the situation,” he said.

Dr Van Dijk said that further back, in January 2014, he and others suggested measures to be taken to ensure a minimum of safety and hygiene in the Masiphumelele informal settlements wetlands.

Their suggestions included that four families share one toilet and one water tap – he estimates that currently more than 70 families share one tap at the moment.

He said their proposal was refused by the City of Cape Town. “The costs for so-called disaster relief since then, have been much higher than a properly done upgrade.”

Ward councillor for the area, Felicity Purchase said the 2014 proposal by Dr Van Dijk was not workable.

“They did not want to concede that the area is a wetland and that the water table underneath it, is in fact there.”

Ms Purchase said: “We have done numerous hydrological as well as scientific water body studies, all confirming the reality and that the area they want us to move people onto is a wetland. The fact that we have had a relative dry cycle over the past six to eight years, does not detract from the fact it remains a wetland,” she said.

She said that when the City compacted after the 2011 fire, the water at the back of C section was 60mm.

“We brought in-fill and this in fact displaced the water in winter, and flooded the other sections to a much larger degree.”

She said that was the reason the City could not do much filling after the 2015 fire. “Every action has a reaction or consequence,” she said.

She said the City has been trying to design elevated ablution blocks over the canals which will allow for cleaning under them.

“We finally have a design which will allow for waterborne sewage, as it has sufficient elevation for a gravity feed into the systems. These will have a janitor. This project was on the cards to start in March,” she said.

Ms Purchase said: “One of our suggestions was to pump the sewage to the waste water treatment works. This was not feasible as there was not sufficient place for the size of the
pump that would be required,” she said.

Ms Purchase said the main problem facing Masiphumelele is vandalism and theft. “Safety is also an issue as people do not feel safe going to the toilets at night. Then they use buckets, and throw this night soil into the canals.”

Ms Purchase said the community has been offered portable flush toilets such as those used by caravans, which the City has offered to service three times a week.

“Although the community was very keen to have them, political pressure was put on them to not take them,” she said.

With regards to the most recent situation, Ms Purchase said there was an issue in the first two weeks of January when the contractor was changed, but that the situation was now sorted out.

Ms Purchase said: “When we were requested to put ï* fencing to hold the edge in order to protect the wetland, the activists objected.”

She said the City will continue to fix toilets regularly as brought to their attention and said that the community also need to do their
part and stop the theft of taps and pipes.

“They need to take ownership and responsibility. They see the culprits and don’t react. As with dumping and illegal shacks, we are slowly making them understand the need to report immediately with photos, so we can take the necessary action against those responsible,” she said.

She said the City also has an operation under way to remove sidewalks of all car wrecks blocking access to pedestrians. “They are a threat to the community with undesirables hiding in them.”

Ms Purchase said: “I am very grateful to the many community leaders working with us in Masiphumelele to improve their own quality of life.”