Durban beach water lab results – why the secrecy?


Something stinks on Durban’s seafront – and it’s not just high levels of sewage pollution that have led to the repeated closure of several city beaches over the past eight months.

Our investigations have revealed several curious discrepancies in recent weeks with sewage pollution readings posted on public signs to guide bathers on bathing safety.

To be charitable, could it be that sloppy officials were just a little loose in updating some information on the signs?

Or is it possible that more senior officials have tried to downplay the risks that could further damage one of the city’s top tourist attractions following April’s devastating floods?

Whatever the cause, however, the city’s failure to explain these apparent inconsistencies — or to play open cards — threatens to further erode public confidence in a beach monitoring system designed to protect public health.

For several years, the official E.coli (sewage bacteria) Durban’s seawater contamination levels were posted on seafront notice boards every two weeks for all to see.

Requests ignored

But last week when Our burning planet raised questions and asked the city to release its latest lab-certified water quality test results, we hit a brick wall.

The city’s communications section acknowledged and responded to our written questions, but simply ignored our request for laboratory certificates for the central waterfront, which stretches from the mouth of the Umgeni River to the entrance port.

We wanted to compare certified lab results (and test dates) with information posted on public notice boards — but the city turned down two opportunities to provide those certificates.

Our request was prompted in part by the recent release of independent test results from the citizen watchdog group Adopt-a-River and Talbot Laboratories, which indicate that (as of August 25) all central beaches had E.coli levels above 500 cfu/100 ml. These are levels considered ‘poor/unacceptable’ from a recreation and public health perspective under South African guidelines for coastal marine waters.

SA Guidelines for Coastal Recreational Waters and Gastrointestinal Hazards. (Graphic: provided)

We have also received inquiries from regular beach users, intrigued by the discrepancies between E.coli readings posted on public eThekwini boards and independent results from Talbot.

Talbot of Durban
Talbot Central Range results for eThekwini. (Graphic: provided)

Talbot results collected on August 25 suggest E.coli readings ranging from 740 to 2,410 CFU along the central beaches (and in the case of Marine Surf/Addington Beach, a very high reading of over 21,000 CFU.

In contrast, eThekwini readings posted on public signs early last week were generally much lower: Bay of Plenty (52), uShaka (86), Battery (110), Addington/Marine Surf (106), Point ( 120), North (148) and Country Club (393), with higher readings of 3,873 at Wedge Beach and 24,196 at the more remote eThekwini Beach near the polluted mouth of the Umgeni River.

eThekwini beach readings
The Battery Beach billboard readings show very different results on August 30 and September 1. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Many of these discrepancies can be explained by different collection dates and sampling times, changing tides and currents, varying stormwater flows, or other factors such as fecal residue from bathers or dogs. defecating on the beach, resulting in isolated peaks of E. coli.

Still, Talbot test results and eThekwini measurements posted on public signs vary widely across multiple beaches.

To clarify some of these discrepancies, we visited several beaches along the central waterfront on August 30. We also photographed water quality billboards between eThekwini beach in the north and uShaka beach in the south. Only the Country Club and eThekwini beaches appeared to be closed.

Board test dates vary widely

Although the signs indicate that samples are taken every two weeks, the test dates displayed varied considerably. There were signs that tests had been carried out on August 30. Others had test dates for August 28 or August 16.

We contacted the city’s designated communications staff and provided them with copies of the latest Talbot test results and asked:

  1. The city comments on the disparate results between the upper Talbot readings and the lower eThekwini readings displayed on the signs.
  2. Copies of all eThekwini lab results for the last two rounds of testing along the center ranges.

In its response, the city said, “As recently announced in an urgent public notice, beaches remain closed due to poor water quality. At this point, our results and the results you shared with us show that beaches should remain closed until test results indicate that the water quality is acceptable.

Most of the central beaches are still open

But hang in there… Last time we checked, most of the central beaches were still open.

So we responded to the city, asking spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela to clarify whether the city was referring to a news flash dated August 22, titled: “The city is closing some beaches due to high E.coli levels”?

This alert only affected 13 of the city’s 25 designated beaches, only two of which are located along the central waterfront. These two beaches (eThekwini and Laguna) are located north of the hotel and restaurant belt.

We had also found during our August 30 inspection that most of the central beaches were open, with lifeguards on duty and bathing beacons in place. So, had the city now made the decision to close all the beaches in the city?

No response to queries

Who knows? We received no response to our request for clarification.

We also asked the city why they were ignoring or refusing our request to provide their latest lab-certified water quality test results.

We asked: is the city trying to hide something? What confidence could the public have in the city’s commitment to transparency and safeguarding the health of bathers if it refused to make these results public?

Again, no response (despite our commitment to postpone posting to another day to allow more time for the city to dig into the results and clarify whether or not it was closing all beaches in the city).

So, with no answers from the city, we returned to the beaches on Saturday afternoon to see what was going on.

Curiously, the public signs at several beaches had changed.

Revised test results

At five beaches (eThekwini, Country Club, Battery, Bay of Plenty and Wedge), new test dates had been inserted on the signs, indicating that a new round of test results had been taken on September 1 (just two days after the previous test dates of August 30). Test scores had also been revised to significantly higher levels.

At uShaka beach, the test records had also been changed (but not the test date) and an additional warning had been erected, stating: “Beach closed. E.coli very high”.

warning durban usaka
Ushaka warning sign, Durban, 30 August. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

What must the public think of these puzzling changes? Is it possible that eThekwini carried out a series of additional tests on September 1 as a precaution? If so, why only two days after the August 30 test dates posted on some beaches?

Have junior officials been instructed to change the simply botched road signs – or is there a more ominous motive to explain the significant changes to test dates and test readings at multiple beaches last week , immediately after contacting the city to raise questions?

But these mixed messages are not new.

Lack of transparency

Earlier this year, we exposed how the city flip-flopped several times on beach closures during the New Year’s tourist season and reopened the beaches when its own lab tests showed high readings at several beaches. Even before the April and May floods devastated sewage treatment infrastructure, a senior city official also attempted to reject the visibly stained pulses of dark water pouring from the mouth of the river. Umgeni River as the aftermath of heavy rains and encroaching water hyacinths. .

The city’s lack of transparency about beach water quality has been called into question by the recent lack of beach water quality results posted on the city’s website.

Commenting on Sunday, Adopt-a-River founder Janet Simpkins said she finds it odd that the city is refusing to release its lab results.

“The public has a right to this information. What are the reasons for not disclosing it? ” she asked.

Signs of progress

Fortunately, there may be a few bright spots on the horizon.

In its brief response to our questions late last week, the city said work was underway to repair the North Wastewater Treatment Works, a major (but dysfunctional) sewage purification facility that has been dumping untreated sewage into the Umgeni River since at least November. 2021.

“The city is working quickly to make the necessary repairs. The Northern Wastewater Treatment Plant has been restored and the plant is now under power. We will redirect all affected wastewater to the plant so that we have normal discharge of treated water to the affected river ecosystem. The Johanna Road pump station has been problematic due to vandalism. This is dealt with quickly.

“Please note that 97 pump stations were badly damaged during the floods and we have repaired 52 of these stations and the rest will also be repaired.”


The opposition Democratic Alliance has also expressed concern over the recent closure of more than 13 beaches due to the high E.coli levels.

In an August 25 statement, Councilor Yogiswarie Govender (DA member of the eThekwini Municipality Executive Committee) said she had written to the Municipal Manager, Musa Mbhele, asking for the weekly publication of all test results for ‘water.

“The closure of the beaches is indeed ringing alarm bells for the future of eThekwini Municipality’s tourism industry, future business attractions and investment. Tourism, one of the few tradable products the city has to offer, has again been hit hard. DM/OBP

This report was written with the assistance of Traveling reporters.



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