Photo by Steve Kretzmann

S.A. - 'A Tsunami of Human Waste' — Half of South Africa's Sewage Treatment Works Are Failing

More than 20 million liters of essentially raw sewage is pumped out to sea every day through the Green Point marine outfall pipe, situated at Mouille Point. Studies have shown antibiotics and other chemical compounds contained in the sewage are accumulating in marine organisms and can also be found in the wet sand on Cape Town’s Atlantic Ocean beaches.

When he was 13 years old, Rudy Hanse joined the guppy development program offered by the Milnerton Canoe Club in Cape Town. There he learned how to paddle a canoe and swim. For Hanse, the weekly outing to the Milnerton Lagoon was a way to escape the poverty and cacophony of Dunoon township, where he lived with his parents. A taxi, organized by the canoe club, would pick him and other kids up to spend a few hours on the water each week.

It wasn’t canoeing that initially attracted him, but the opportunity to escape the township.

“From the outside it was a sport to do, a way to get out,” said Hanse. “It took two to three weeks to get used to it, but after two or three months I started joining the master’s group and had to come twice a week to training.”

Later, he took up a lifeguarding course, while continuing to paddle at the club and training with other members for the grueling Berg River Canoe Marathon. After graduating high school, he applied for a lifeguarding job in Dubai. Though Hanse did not get the job, he says it led him to a different job in the hospitality industry.

As a result, Hanse was able to extract himself from the poverty and joblessness that permeates Dunoon and begin earning a decent income in guest services in the United Arab Emirates. “If it wasn’t for [that training course], I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said.

This opportunity was available because the Milnerton Lagoon was clean enough to swim in. That is no longer the case. For years, the water has been too polluted by sewage to risk children being exposed to it, and the canoe club had to close down its guppy development program about eight years ago.

“Kids should be able to have the same experience I had,” said Hanse.

But this is not an isolated incident of how pollution, caused by sewage infrastructure failure, shuts down opportunities for development and employment. Rivers and water bodies across South Africa have become too polluted for use, and the government is doing an increasingly poor job of addressing the situation.


After a nine-year hiatus, South Africa’s long-awaited Green Drop report, a regulatory audit of the country’s wastewater treatment, paints a bleak picture. More than half of wastewater treatment works in the country fail to treat sewage properly and, in many cases, fail to treat it at all.

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