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The re-greening of a 'hood by the sea

A massive green-belt cleanup project is testament to what can be achieved if environmental groups and responsible businesses collaborate.


by Des Erasmus, bird story agency


Environmental activist Nduduzo Ndaba has a wishlist for a severely polluted greenbelt that sits astride an equally polluted river in Durban, on the east coast of South Africa. It includes more than the vigorous deep clean that is currently underway.

“I would like to see this as part of a green corridor again, a park where residents can relax, for bird watching. Vegetable gardens would be good,” he says, cocking his head towards the metres-high mounds of waste and debris that are being scooped up by graders.


Ndaba is a team supervisor at a non-governmental organisation involved in grassroots environmental action.


The area being deep-cleaned used to be part of a green corridor with a walking, cycling and running route that stretched from the inland area of Inanda, all the way to Durban’s beaches. But it has been neglected by local government and is avoided by the public because of the filth.


“You should have seen it before we started,” Ndaba said of the area, shaking his head as the graders shift discarded plastic, textiles, household items, garden waste, glass bottles, building rubble and muck into piles.


The clean-up has been sponsored by several businesses in the area. Stamatis Kapsimalis, owner of a storage company, was the force behind getting the companies together. At least 300,000 rands (US$ 16,650) have been spent on the project already, he said - a clear indication that local business was “invested” in improving the area.


“I am the patron of where I live and work, no matter who makes the mess. My business logo is ‘handle with care' and the environment should be handled the same way,” Kapsimalis explained.


Other businesses in the area, from construction to meat companies, have come on board to support the clean-up. Apart from sponsoring the graders and trucks, the companies also pay the salaries of employees at the NGO, Adopt-A-River.


Once the huge piles of waste have been created, the graders lift and tip it into waiting trucks. It is then transported to a landfill, where the eThekwini metro that runs Durban has waived its dumping fees. The metro has also assisted with fencing off an entrance to the area, to prevent further dumping of waste.


While Ndaba’s dream for the area is shared by the rest of the team, his appreciation for the environment “has always been there”, he said. “Nobody had to teach me.”


He was, however, inspired into activism via documentaries he used to watch on television when he was "very young".


A local of KwaZulu-Natal, Ndaba was born in Ntuzuma, a township built in the days of apartheid. He practises green activism in the township, he said. It’s something he regards as a necessity for preservation for future generations. He admitted that bringing residents around to his way of thinking would take time. But he is willing to persevere, he said.

So far, workers at Adopt-a-River, including founder, Janet Simpkins, have managed to clear tons of industrial and residential waste on the land that is situated above the river - the mighty Umgeni, one of the region's most famous rivers.


The river is part of the route of an internationally-acclaimed annual canoe marathon, the Dusi. The 120-kilometre canoe race starts at the Msunduzi River in provincial capital Pietermaritzburg and finishes at the mouth of the Umgeni, in Durban. The race is a massive economic driver for rural communities along the route but its future hangs in the balance because of severe pollution. The stench of the water is unbearable in many places and the dangerous bacterium, E. coli, is a constant concern.


Durban’s golden mile beaches have been closed at least six times this year because of high E. coli levels, the result of effluent making its way down the Umgeni and into the sea. The city’s water and sewerage infrastructure was severely damaged during April floods, which exacerbated the problem. In August, dead fish - the victims of effluent outflow - were found on the banks of the river.


What makes Ndaba angry, he said, is the way that some of the warehouses adjoining the land dump their rubbish and unwanted components. Several even cut holes in their own fences to make dumping more convenient.


Adopt-A-River’s teams were hoping to finish the clean-up in a week, but two days of rain and the immensity of the task forced a change of plans. When the graders and tipper trucks finish up, the teams will have to scale the riverbank to pick out the remaining rubbish by hand. It’s an unenviable job but the environmental warriors are well-versed in the importance of clean waterways; it is their passion, they said.


What is difficult for Ndaba and Simpkins to fathom, however, is the extent to which Durban residents drive from the suburbs to dump waste around the river. This is partially the result of the landfill sites in Durban not being easily accessible, requiring dumping fees and being far away, explained Simpkins.


“Any small contractor who is trying to make some profit on a job is not going to drive to one of the far landfills and pay the fees,” she said.


Both Pietermaritzburg and Durban landfills have also become synonymous with criminal activity as waste pickers fight over spoils, the result of a depressed local economy and South Africa’s cost of living crisis. For some community members, dumping in the greenbelt area is seen as safer option than driving to the landfills.


But personal accountability and education could be engaged to address the issue, according to Ndaba and Simpkins.


“People who dump like this, or simply litter, are short-sighted and selfish. It makes me really, really angry. They may think of it as one piece of paper, but if everyone thought like that, we would have no more green spaces in the future,” said Ndaba.


That sentiment is shared by Azile Mpukwana. Mpukwana, an intern at the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) who has been working with Adopt-A-River. An environmental science graduate, Mpukwana said her priority was conservation.


“The more we litter, the more we have to clean. The more we litter, the more our water is compromised,” she explained. The best way to get this message across, she said, is to lead by example.


“Talking only gets you so far. Do the right thing and set an example. People must see you doing what you talk about them having to do.”


Leading by example is one of the reasons Mpukwana takes part in regular beach clean-ups in the area where the Umgeni flows into the sea, she said. Like Ndaba, Mpukwana finds that bringing beach users around to her way of thinking is difficult.


“Some people will come up and ask what we are doing and how long we will take, but mostly there is a sense of not caring,” she said.


By early October, most of the mess had been cleared from the greenbelt.


"We haven’t had any more reports of dumping,” said Mpukwana.


“Once one person starts dumping in an area, it tends to attract more. With the fence up, and the area clean, people seem to respect it more - they don't take chances as easily.”


bird story agency

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