In a flowing network that links one suburb to another, the Cape’s canalised rivers could be a source of pride – a natural resource used, if not for consumption, than at least for shared enjoyment.
They could become a niche market for locals or tourists who could paddle them. They could, like they are in Pinelands, be used for fund-raising events like rubber duck races: safe places for families to come together as a community and enjoy some sunshine.
They could be like the Liesbeeck River, believed to be the oldest urbanised river in the country. While about 70% of it is canalised today, there is a section of unspoilt beauty called the Upper Liesbeeck River Garden, across the way from the Paradise Road intersection of the M3.
This garden is funded and maintained by the Bishopscourt Residents’ Association, City Council, personal trusts, and local estate agents – citizens taking it upon themselves to upgrade their environment.
Until 2004, this area was overgrown, overrun with alien vegetation and was used as a dumping ground. Residents were not prepared to accept that. They banded together and replaced invasive alien vegetation with indigenous riverine plants. They found a way to maintain a healthy river and make the area safe for people to share.
While rivers, vleis and wetlands are under threat throughout the country, this river garden is a working example of the role rivers could play.
The canals further afield do not have glorious forest surrounding them or the meditative backdrop of silence: they curve between suburbs and houses and the worry of people’s everyday lives, they wind through poverty and places where the state of a river is not even a consideration, much less a priority. And it shows.
It is here, Muizenberg resident Kevin Rack says, we can use the state of the rivers as a reflection of what is happening in our society. “You judge a city on the state of its rivers” is another expression he uses. It’s an observation that could sound like a criticism – if you miss his compassion.
I’ve been on a number of tours of the canals, some with Kevin, some with Marina da Gama resident Mike Ryders, some on my own or with other Marina residents keen to share information but not the limelight.
These trips have taken me through Steenberg and Retreat, through Heathfield and Tokai, following the canalised rivers to their last point where (when the Zandvlei estuary mouth is open) they flow out to the sea. For the most part, it is a heart-breaking sight: sludge, muck, stagnant water, refuse strewn over very troubled waters.
Nadeema Samuels, from Steenberg, met with us at the intersection of Military Road and Prince George Drive, at the start of a two-hour exploration of the canals that feed into Zandvlei. We stood together looking out over the canal that runs alongside Prince George Drive. Just two weeks ago, it had been properly cleaned. But this day, the length of it was clotted with rubbish – the contents of household bins and some tyres, for good measure.
“I see them. They come across at night, with their bins, and they just dump everything into the water,” she says.
She is worn down by this, annoyed at the short-sightedness of it.
“I worry about the children. There used to be a concrete bannister here,” she says, indicating the section of the canal that runs beneath Military Road just before the Prince George Drive intersection. But it has been broken, pushed into the canal. Now the children can fall in. They are scared, and I am scared for them. I have called the city council, called disaster management – I keep calling – nothing gets done
“Every day the children are at risk, and no matter how often this mess is cleaned, it just happens again. I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Mike Ryders shares her frustration. He has ploughed waist deep into the canals in Marina da Gama many, many times. Wearing gloves and waders, he has picked the rubbish out of the nets he has funded, himself.
He shakes his head. He has seen buck, dead puppies, even a dead pig, trapped in the nets.
Mike has heartily championed the clean-ups of the Marina canals, and he has a group of residents who volunteer alongside him.
People like Nadeema and Mike and Kevin want solutions, but the need more hands to achieve them.
It was Mike who filmed a video which went viral on Facebook, after the rains in April last year. The amount of rubbish being washed out to the sea through the net in the Marina, was extraordinary. As much as he is hoping for the much-needed rain this year, he knows the same level and range of detritus will wash down from the canals into and through the Marina and out to sea. He knows the one net he has will not ward off the waiting wall of rubbish. That “wall of rubbish” is not an exaggeration. At some points on the tour, there is evidence of rubbish having being tipped from a truck straight into the water.
As we walked, we were stopped by residents or business owners, who expressed their dismay. They said they had reported the mess, often, the City had responded and cleaned up, but it just keeps happening.
Piles of rubbish rot beneath freshly erected signs displaying declaring “no dumping”.
The good fight is still happening. The City walled off a section along Military Road where people were dumping directly into the open canal and it responded to an atrocious mess at Langevlei in Retreat, cleaning the rubbish traps there. Also the Healthfield canals are pristine: wide open spaces, clean and inspiring.
Kevin and Mike agree that approximately 3kms of canals are responsible for 95% of the plastic waste and industrial pollution which washes into the marina.
“I would really like to thank all those who are trying so desperately hard to rectify this disaster with such limited funds,” says Kevin. “From the council, the canal cleaners, Mark Clive, Michael Ryders, EPWP, volunteers, Zandvlei Trust to name a few.”
In a State of the Rivers report as far back as 2005, the cost of poor water quality was R2.2 billion in direct health costs; R0,7 billion in indirect health costs and R64 million in water treatment costs: for the year 2000. Environmental costs were excluded from this figure.
Part of the problem listed then was that litter and other pollution from urban areas washed into rivers through stormwater drains. One question is, who is calculating the cost, today? Another: who is bearing the cost now? And with regards to who is going to fix it, I can only quote what I have heard my father say all of my life: “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”