Paddling their way into the sunset

Mncekeleli Klaas leads a group of paddlers during the Peninsular Paddle.

Paddlers who participated in the 7th Peninsula Paddle on Sunday June 5, were rewarded with Cape Town’s finest weather that beat the best of summer weather.

More than 100 paddlers enjoyed a remarkable day which began with the sunrise over a beautiful, well managed Zandvlei reserve and progressed to the calm seas of Table Bay and finally into Milnerton lagoon. The event coincided with World Environment Day, which incidentally received virtually no attention either at a local and national level. Our politicians are too distracted and unable to face up to the failing state of the environment.

It is legitimate to deal with the looming extinction of the rhino in the Go Wild for Life campaign, which is about the only effort that appears to have made any news on the day, but this isn’t the only game in town. Ask any paddler who slogged and paddled through the grime and muck on the stretch between Zandvlei and Princess Vlei, and along the Black River to sea.

They can tell you about the extent of the failure and it is truly alarming. There were no signs of freshwater crabs and other aquatic species in the Steenberg canal, only loads of dirty nappies, plastics, tampons and plastic bags, including items such as a lounge sofa, a piano keyboard and parts of old computers.

This is the worst condition that we have seen along this stretch in seven years.

We are puzzled by the deterioration and struggling to understand why. The contrast between a remarkably clean Zandvlei and a degraded Steenberg is extreme.

Then there is the Black River, a river that has improved since the first paddle in 2010 when it was almost impossible to navigate through the water hyacinth that covered the surface.

The difference is due to the upgrade of the Athlone Waste Water Treatment plant that has improved the water quality resulting in a reduction in bacteriological contamination.

It is also due to the ongoing work of the Kader Asmal Project that was started in 2012 as a Department of Public Works enterprise.

This project has achieved some gains in managing loads of solid litter finding its way into the Black River. Hundreds of tons of discarded material are extracted from the river each month, but the volume is clearly way beyond the control of the project team and in the long-term this kind of clean-up operation is unsustainable.

The piles of plastics at the mouth of the Salt River where it meets the ocean is a symbol of our collective failure.

The environment will bite back with increasingly poor water quality and risk of digesting contaminated marine foods.

The oceans are new landfill sites fed by the Black River and others.

Devolving responsibility for all this mess to the City of Cape Town alone is not going to work, at least not in its present form. The model is tired.

We are all connected to these waterways, and while we might be tempted to think of solutions and programmes, it is clear from the traverse through the city’s waterways that systemic issues are deeply embedded in our urban society and that socio-economic and countless other divisions run counter to finding quick answers.

On Sunday the Peninsula Paddlers were confronted by the sheer ugliness of parts of these waterways and were disappointed by the utter failure in investments that should be showing signs of a better environment for all.

If you want to use an indicator that will test the health of the City of Cape Town, look at its waterways. We used this test this past Sunday and overall left thoroughly disheartened.

* Dr Winter is from the Environmental and Geographical Science department, UCT and founder member and organiser of the Peninsula Paddle.