Cape Town mayor bullish on solving city’s sewage crisis but residents say much more needs to be done

The city still has numerous sewage pollution issues, but Geordin Hill-Lewis is ‘on the right track’, says expert.
It has been a year since Geordin Hill-Lewis donned Cape Town’s mayoral chain and declared the city’s sewage pollution crisis a top priority. The City is making some progress, but many of the biggest pollution problems remain.
Arguably the most pressing, and most visible sewage pollution is that of the Diep River estuary, which forms the Milnerton Lagoon.
The estuary receives stormwater and pollution via the Diep River from informal settlements upstream, but activists and scientists believe the main pollution source is the Potsdam sewage treatment works, which releases about 47-million litres of effluent into the Diep River every day. Under the City’s management, the effluent is supposed to be properly treated, but historical data from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) shows the sewage plant has failed to meet national effluent quality guidelines since 2018.
The extent of the estuary’s pollution led to the provincial government issuing the City a directive to stop the pollution and rehabilitate the estuary more than two years ago. Though the pollution has continued, no further action has been taken by provincial authorities. Any recreational activity on the estuary is currently a health hazard, and surrounding residents have to endure an almost permanent stench emanating from the water.
During his election campaign, Hill-Lewis said he had childhood memories of swimming in the lagoon and intended to return it to a healthy state before the end of his term. But lead researcher at UCT’s Future Water Institute Dr Kevin Winter believes that at the current rate this is unlikely.
Widespread sewage treatment failure
Potsdam is far from the only failing sewage treatment plant. Of the 24 sewage treatment plants managed by the City (excluding three marine outfalls), 15 release effluent into our rivers and oceans that do not meet national DWS guidelines, the DWS dashboard shows. This is just one less than the 16 which were failing last year. Failing sewage plants include Athlone, which is designed to treat 105-million litres of sewage per day. Over the past three months, it has a 0% adherence to national guidelines for faecal coliforms such as E.coli and enterococcus (max 1,000 faecal coli/100ml) and scores 46% for treatment of chemical pollution indicators such as phosphates and nitrates. This partially treated effluent is released into the highly polluted Black River, from which people are known to fish ...