Coast KZN

04 Feb 2021

Years of environmental damage to Tongaat River estuary will need government’s full support to fix

Juan Venter (North Coast Courier) Picture: The Tongaat River estuary, about 6km long, falls on the boundary between the eThekwini, KwaDukuza and iLembe municipal areas. Aside from sugarcane cultivation and built-up areas, the land cover includes three types of vegetation cover, degraded land and a small portion of invasive plant species.

Frequent sewage spills and outdated equipment at the Tongaat waste water treatment plant is damaging the health of the Tongaat River and estuary. You may drive past the river daily and with the naked eye all you see is water. But the problem is far more than meets the eye. Countless river species are at risk, including bird life.

Bird life at the river may be in abundance owing to the small size of the estuary, however experts have given the estuary the lowest possible health score. They say bird species’ habitat has been severely affected. Cape Town-based environmental research company, Anchor Environmental, was appointed by government to investigate water quality of the estuary.

Their report shows that water quality has been declining since 1978 and that frequent sewage spills have caused river species and aquatic plant life to be severely affected. Sources of pollution include the Tongaat municipal waste water treatment plant, Tongaat Hulett’s Maidstone sugar mill and upstream residential pollution.

Changes to the in-stream plant life, loss of bank size and the shrinking intertidal area, Anchor reports, will cause continued decline of bird life which has been placed under strain by reducing water species they feed on.

“Unless water quality is improved, all other attempts to return the estuary to a healthy state will have minimal to no positive effect,” Anchor said.

Anchor’s goal is to see to the rehabilitation of the estuary, along with the assistance of the 3 municipalities in which jurisdiction the estuary falls: KwaDukuza, eThekwini and iLembe. In its report for the Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs department, Anchor Environmental found that years of human-related environmental pollution has seen the estuary shrink in shape and size, despite an upgrade at the waste water treatment plant.

It is vital to the conservation of the 6 km-long estuary’s flora and fauna that water quality be improved. Because of the small size of the estuary, it is especially sensitive to pollution and a number of invasive plants have taken hold, mostly surface plants such as water lettuce and hyacinth. Untreated sewage – human faeces – is a rich fertiliser for these plants, which use up oxygen in the river and cause the death of fish and other river species if left unchecked.

The estuary has further become home to 3 alien fish species – two of which include the Nile tilapia and guppy, Poecilia reticulata – which impacts on the natural food chain.

Anchor reports that a fair amount of cooperative governance would be required to see to the estuary’s health being restored.

Interested and affected parties are invited to comment on the Situation Assessment Report (SAR) report, available for download at To comment, contact Anchor Environmental’s Safiyya Sedick at or 021 701 3420.