Pollution sinks annual paddle to highlight Cape Town’s filthy waterways

10-year-old Peninsula Paddle cancelled for the first time

07 September 2021 - 14:39
The 2021 Peninsula Paddle has been cancelled due to dangerous levels of pollution along the route.
The 2021 Peninsula Paddle has been cancelled due to dangerous levels of pollution along the route.
Image: Peninsula Paddle

An annual Cape Town kayaking event that raises awareness about polluted waterways has been called off due to dangerous levels of pollution along the route.

The Peninsula Paddle sees hardened paddlers navigate a matrix of canals and vleis linking Muizenberg in False Bay with Milnerton in Table Bay.

The 27km route takes in some of the city’s most foul waterways, including the Black River. Paddlers wear protective clothing and have to sometimes pull and push their boats through clogged-up sections when paddling becomes too difficult.

However, while in the past paddlers have been prepared to brave polluted patches, this year the water quality is too risky. Recent readings by the City of Cape Town show dangerous level of E. coli, a bacteria linked to human excrement.

The readings were taken at three vleis that have been closed to the public for months. 

“Sadly the paddle is off because we can’t use Zandvlei (near Muizenberg), which means a whole section has to be left out of the route,” organiser Kevin Winter said on Tuesday.

City water quality readings have scared off paddlers.
City water quality readings have scared off paddlers.
Image: Peninsula Paddle

Winter, a water scientist at the University of Cape Town, said he hoped paddlers could use an alternative route, but this had also proved too challenging due to elevated pollution in the Black River. 

“We always knew we paddled the first part of the Black River in polluted water but the litter in the river has been some of the worst,” he said.

In a post on the event website, Winter said the cancellation of the event was disappointing.

“Huge regret in postponing the Peninsula Paddle for 2021,” he said.

City water readings supplied to GroundUp showed serious levels of pollution in Zandvlei prior to the vlei being closed and after the closure. 

A reading of more than 4,001 colony-forming units (cfu) per 100ml is considered an “unacceptable risk” but the initial reading in May was 8.3-million cfu/100ml, GroundUp reported. The readings from Aug. 23 were 430,000 cfu/100ml and 106,000 cfu/100ml.

Winter said he was made aware of the pollution problem at Zandvlei during last year’s paddle “when we walked through raw sewage”. 

He said: “We went up the canal dragging our kayaks and got to an awful smell and realised we were walking in sewage. Really sad. Residents in Marina da Gama have complained about this for some time.”

Winter said he hoped the city would release more regular water quality reports to help raise public awareness around pollution, much like updated water data during the city’s drought crisis helped raise public awareness about the severity of the problem.

“We need to do this for water quality although it can’t be posted each week because sampling and lab work takes time,” said Winter.

“But even once a month would be better than none.

“As a researcher, I have to apply to get data from the city and it takes months at best. The city is obliged to take public concerns and interests in water quality seriously and urgently needs to find a way to release data each month.

“There are ways in which this can be done with many examples in other countries with active websites that are able to guide the public about the condition and risk of water use.”