Port of Durban tackles solid waste imports

waste in port Solid waste is a growing problem in African ports

African ports face increasing generation of solid waste along with worsening climate change effects such as heavy rains and flooding. Shem Oirere finds out how Durban is rising to the challenge

With nearly all ports located in lowland areas next to big cities, the task of tracking waste generation, storage, segregation, collection, treatment and disposal to avert leaks and debris that could threaten marine operations has become even more onerous for port operators and city or municipal authorities.

A recent incident at South Africa’s busiest port of Durban, which handles up to 60% of the country’s exports and imports, involving leakage of sewage into the port and unprecedented storm flooding, is a wakeup call to port operators to intensify partnerships with city or municipal authorities.

This can include tracking the soundness of waste management policies and associated infrastructure to avert compromising the health and safety of port users.

According to Transnet National Ports Authority (TNPA), a division of Transnet SOC, which controls and manages South Africa’s eight commercial ports on the country’s 2,954km
coastline, all diving operations and angling activities were suspended for most of May at the port because of severe sewage discharge that “poses a risk to diving personnel and marine life”.

TNPA said in a statement: “The Port of Durban was unfortunately on the receiving end of the large volume of litter, effluent and sewage that was discharged through the stormwater reticulation system from a catchment area of more than 200 km2 in size." The discharge was attributed to the failure of pumps at the eThekwini municipality’s Mahatma Gandhi pump station.

The municipality issued a statement urging people “to stay clear of the harbour until further notice” as it launched a major clean-up operation Durban port harbour. About 20% of the harbour’s water is believed to have been affected by the sewage discharge, according to eThekwini Municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela.

“The failure of the mechanical rakes at the entrance to the pump station has allowed an ever increasing amount of foreign objects to enter the pumping system resulting in the pumps tripping and failing mechanically,” added Ms Mayisela.

Post-disaster clean-up

Coincidentally, TNPA had in May launched a major clean-up at the Port of Durban to remove a large volume of waste and vegetation from the port after the recent heavy rains and flooding in KwaZulu-Natal province.

“The adverse weather caused the usual deluge of plastic and other debris to flow into the port, leaving behind an unsightly scene,” said Acting Durban Port Manager, Nokuzola Nkowane.

Plastics in oceans and lakes represent a challenge not only for governments but also for port operators. “We would like to appeal to the public to please help curb plastic pollution as this causes huge problems when the debris flows into the harbour,” said Ms Nkowane.

She said the debris, which included large logs, posed a threat to the safe navigation of the harbour craft which are used to guide vessels safely in and around the port. “The ingress of waste impacted on vessel movements” she said, adding that some of the vessels were unable to berth or sail in the Maydon Wharf precinct.

“The combined catchment area of the rivers, canals and storm-water drainage systems that drain into the port is over 200km2 in size and the port waters are on the receiving end of the large volume of litter, effluent and sewer that is discharged into the storm-water reticulation system within the catchment,” said Ms Nkowane.

Strong partnership among municipal authorities, port operators and the private sector in solid waste management, especially plastic, is critical not only for the port of Durban but
also for Africa’s marine life and transport.

There are encouraging signs however: in March, at the seventh edition of the Africa CEO Forum held in Kigali, some of the multinational companies operating in Africa launched an initiative to tackle the generation of plastic waste material that could end up in ports across the continent.

Multinationals such as Diageo Coca Cola Company, Diageo, Nestlé and Unilever said they would “facilitate and support their local subsidiaries to engage in market-level public-private partnerships and industry collaborations".

According to a statement from the Alliance’s secretariat, “The Alliance will promote innovation and collaborate on technical solutions and local pilot initiatives to improve plastics collection and recycling, which in turn is expected to create jobs and commercial activity.”

Such initiatives will reduce unregulated dumping of solid waste and lower the risk of flood-driven debris affecting the smooth operations of ports in the region.

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