Port Elizabeth of Today: Threats Confronting the Swartkops River and Estuary

.In the Swartkops River and its estuary, Port Elizabeth possesses a priceless environmental jewel. Will it ultimately follow the dismal well-trodden path taken by the mouth of the Papenkuils River known as Smelly Creek. By the early 1960’s it was taking its last gasp The destruction of the habitant chocked the water flow and the ingress of industrial chemicals killed the reeds and other vegetation. Ultimately the few resilient flamingos doffed their caps and bade their millennia old sanctuary adieu. And not a tear was shed.

Too easily the same steep and slippery slope could ineluctably overwhelm nature’s defences in the Swartkops Valley.

To eliminate the threats and mitigate others, this is what the plan of action should encompass.

Main picture: The Swartkops Estuary

All solutions are ipso facto contentious, even something as mundane as the spelling of the river’s name. I prefer a Z but S is the overwhelming favourite.  Compounding the difficulty of eradicating the problem, a slew of options are advanced. Nobody is satisfied. The accountants abhor the cost, the poor are – well – too poor to concern themselves other than with survival.

State of play
The source of the Swartkops River lies in the Groot Winterhoek Mountains about 80 kilometres inland. This river system is bookended by the pristine arch-type Groendal Dam above Uitenhage and by the amazing estuary near the mouth. Between these two points is at best strained system coupling water hyacinth and alien vegetation with the ravages of farming, township and industrial pollution, have taken their toll.

The indigenous redfin minnow and frog populations are affected by the black bass of the Groendal Dam. When the dam was built, the river’s natural flushing action, which washed pollution and seeds of alien vegetation into the sea, declined.

Between the dam and Uitenhage quarrying for stone and gravel disturbed the riverbed and alien vegetation thrived. Exotic vegetation in the form of dense Sesbania and Port Jackson willows spread unhindered. Forests of bluegum trees also spread like a wild fire. As each tree consumed 600 litres of water per day, they sucked the river dry. Community projects to remove forests of bluegum trees have been launched periodically.

Before Uitenhage, water from the Elands River enters the Swartkops River. As bad agricultural practices are employed by farmers on this stretch, the water quality of the Swartkops deteriorates at this junction.

At Bulmers Causeway, a low river bridge above Uitenhage, the water is still clear, and fish are plentiful. This soon degenerates into de-oxygenated water with a deep green colour due to presense of algae and nutrients. Like too much fertiliser on your lawn, too many nutrients are bad for the water. Previously old mohair and wool evaporation plants which leaked were problematical. Pressure was applied on industries to desist from this practice and instead to install their own sewerage treatment plants. This met with much obfuscation and procrastination from industrialists.

Bulmers Causeway painted by Lionel Bulmer

Water quality is again degraded once the Swartkops River passes Uitenhage. The offenders in this case are the stormwater pipes from industries which discharge into the river. This compels the municipal authorities to test the water each week to detect offending industries. Ultimately a process of education is undertaken and if unsuccessful, fines are imposed.

Next the river flows past the overcrowded McNaughton Township where the run-off from the Kat Canal meets it. This canal is a narrow open concrete drain originally intended for stormwater but it also carries everything thrown into it. The Kat Canal is unlike the Marksman Canal, downstream at KwaNobuhle, where the banks have been stabilised and growing vegetation filters out litter and pollution.

Kat Canal

Along this stretch of the river, clean water from the Despatch Water Sewerage Treatment Plant is discharged. The cleansing process cannot remove the nutrients. As a consequence, water hyacinth is so thick that fish and frogs have disappeared due to the lack or paucity of light.

For the following six kilometres, the river looks surprisingly healthy. On this stretch, quarrying for sand stone and gravel is performed. At this point the river enters the eight-kilometre estuary which is flushed out regularly by the sea tides.  

Chatty River

The estuary is the home to the Eastern Cape’s best breeding site for sea birds. Flamingos, white-breasted cormorants, kelp gulls and Caspian terns are found here.

In the estuary the Motherwell concrete stormwater canal empties its pollution. Swimming on either side of it is banned for 200 metres. The canal is a huge headache but will improve as more townships receive water services. An experiment to plant reed beds in and around the tail end of the canal to act as a pollution filter is under way.

Also emptying into the Swartkops estuary is the 12km long Chatty River where thousands of squatters’ homes on the flood plains can be swept away during heavy rain. As swiftly as the Mzingisi Trust relocates these families, other squatters replace them.

Battle to save Swartkops River by Rosemary Wilson (E.P. Herald, 21 February 1995)

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