Why Durban’s Golden Mile is washing away

17 March 2018 - 09:00 By Tony Carnie
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Surfers paddle along what remains of the Golden Mile near Dairy Beach.
Surfers paddle along what remains of the Golden Mile near Dairy Beach.
Image: Tony Carnie

Durban’s iconic central tourist beaches are being washed away‚ because Transnet and the city appear to have dithered for nearly 10 years on re-instating the city’s beach sand pumping scheme properly.

The city sought this week to blame some of the erosion on climate change and river sand-mining operations south of the city. But the major root of the current problem can be traced to 2007‚ when the old north and south piers were demolished during a R3-billion harbour-widening project.

Since then‚ the city has been limping along with a “temporary” and apparently dysfunctional sand-pumping scheme‚ because Transnet had to demolish the main sand pumping station and now – more than a decade later – has yet to commission a new sand hopper storage centre to properly replenish Durban’s eroding beaches.

As a result‚ several beaches have been severely eroded to the extent that sandbag ramparts are now in place to protect parts of the promenade from pounding waves.

Though Durban has been replenishing beach sand artificially for more than 80 years because of natural sea erosion‚ harbour expansion over more than a century has accelerated the erosion considerably. This is because Transnet deliberately traps and diverts vast volumes of sand to prevent the entrance to Africa’s busiest port from getting choked up by sand and mud. Largely because of the massive physical barriers created by the north and south breakwaters‚ the city’s “golden mile” tourist beaches are starved of sand that is normally shifted along the coastline by waves and currents.

In the late 1970s‚ after decades of more modest sand replenishment schemes‚ the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) designed a new system to nourish the starved beaches via a 3.5km long pumping scheme that transported sand from the harbour mouth as far north as the Bay of Plenty.

This week‚ however‚ in response to queries sent to the eThekwini Municipality and Transnet‚ it emerged that the “temporary” system installed can currently only pump sand as far as Addington beach.

Neither Transnet or the municipality stated explicitly why sand could not be pumped beyond Addington beach using the city’s land-based pumping scheme.

Transnet said: “This question should be directed to eThekwini Municipality.”

When the municipality was asked the same question‚ a spokesman said the city was still relying on temporary pipelines as the existing pumping scheme could not operate properly until Transnet commissioned a new hopper station at the Point.

“This hopper station project has experienced delays‚ which has delayed the commissioning of the booster stations as they are dependent on the hopper station coming on stream and receiving slurry from it‚” the city said.

Transnet said construction of the new hopper station was completed last year‚ but would not be operational before final performance testing scheduled to begin next week.

Transnet was asked why it took 10 years to replace adequate sand-pumping facilities at the new Point station. Had Transnet failed to provide adequate budget to replace the old infrastructure‚ or was it a case of poor planning or dawdling by Transnet?

Responding‚ Transnet said that when the harbour entrance widening project began in 2007‚ the city and Transnet agreed that a temporary sand bypass scheme be implemented during the execution phase of the project. The completion of the harbour widening was completed in 2010 and was followed by a detailed design phase for a permanent bypass system. Hopper construction began in 2012 and finished in 2017.

“It must be acknowledged that there were delays on the project but following the sequence of events‚ it is incorrect to suggest that it took 10 years for Transnet to fulfil its undertaking. During the operation of the temporary system‚ Transnet has always fulfilled its obligation to pump sand to the beaches. It remained the responsibility of the city to redistribute the sand to beaches further north.

“The current system is similar in operations to the older one. Therefore‚ it is incorrect to suggest cases of poor planning or failure to provide adequate budget. The delays were about 2.5 years but we are still within the budget.”

The city and Transnet both insisted that adequate supplies of sand were also provided over the last decade to nourish Durban’s beaches. In fact‚ said Transnet‚ they delivered twice as much sand required under an agreement with the city - 500 000 cubic metres a year‚ instead of the minimum 250 000 cubic metres.

Despite this extra volume of sand‚ several beaches have been severely eroded. The area between Dairy Beach and North Beach has been particularly hard-hit‚ to the extent that large sandbags have been piled up to defend the promenade in front of the Joe Cool’s and Wimpy dining area. But surf was still breaking over parts of the promenade last week‚ while the corner of the North Beach lifeguard tower was cordoned off with hazard tape because the foundations are undermined.

Durban businessman and paddle-skier Johnny Vassilaros acknowledged that large volumes of sand had been dumped in the vicinity of Vetch’s pier. But apart from smothering marine life in the area‚ he said‚ most of the sand was washed further out to sea and was not replenishing the eroded central beaches.

Vassilaros said the Transnet dredger had also dumped sand from several hundred metres offshore‚ which “serves no purpose”. Just before Christmas‚ another attempt was made to pump sand in the vicinity of Snake Park beach using a temporary scheme - but the pipeline was washed ashore and smashed by heavy swells.

“One wonders how many millions will continue to be wasted without anyone ever being held accountable. If we continue in this manner Durban may very well find itself being a seaside city without any beaches‚” Vassilaros charged.

Responding to questions on the causes of the current severe erosion at Dairy Beach‚ eThekwini municipal spokesman Thozi Mthethwa said: “This is a result of the effects of climate change‚ coupled with over-mining of sand. To mitigate the situation‚ the Municipality has employed several strategies. These include ensuring that beach sand washed out by the currents is swept back by municipal employees onto sea on a daily basis. The Municipality has also written to the national Department of Mineral Resources to request for a meeting aimed at tightening regulations on the issuing of sand-mining permits.”

On fears that significant damage to beach infrastructure was likely because of equinox tides next week‚ Mthethwa said: “We are aware of the forthcoming high tides. Measures have been put in place to protect our infrastructure and to warn the public ahead of beach closures. All our officials are on high alert.”

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