South Africa: 30 Things the City Has Done to Clean Up Cape Town’s Vleis, Rivers and Wetlands

All water quality test results are now available to the public online

A key pledge made by Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis during his election campaign was to clean up the waterways and wetlands of Cape Town.

Here are 30 key achievements by the City of Cape Town, implemented together with partners and community organisations, to clean up Cape Town’s wetlands and waterways, over the last year.

  • The multibillion rand mayoral programme on inland water quality and sanitation is our investment plan to 1) restore our vleis and 2) expand sanitation. We meet monthly to track the work towards our goals.

  • We established a one-of-a-kind structure in local government in South Africa. The ‘Wetlands Committee’ which I chair brings scientific expertise to the heart of our water governance and provides real-time policy guidance.
  • In March 2022 we hosted the first Water Colloquium with Cape Town water activists to discuss a single city-wide issue. We will be hosting the second colloquium in early 2023 and announcing the theme soon.
  • We now have full data and information transparency. All water quality testing results are now open source and available online. I personally ensure additional information requested by researchers and the public is shared.
  • We reviewed and revamped our water testing methodology to ensure accuracy and scientific credibility. The Scientific Services team continues to process hundreds of thousands of water tests a year to ensure data-led governance.

  • A new estuary management plan for the Diep River (Milnerton Lagoon) was drafted and will be adopted in the December council. We are expecting a first draft of the Zandvlei estuary management plan in early 2023.
  • An internationally benchmarked vlei opening and closing decision framework has been drafted and will be adopted within the next few weeks to ensure communities can safely utilise their local waterbodies for culture and recreation.
  • A system and procedure has been created to guide where small-scale plants can be approved to screen and process their own sewage.
  • A comprehensive impact study has been conducted into the effects of the marine outfalls and wastewater treatment plants on the ocean. Important recommendations will guide how we further protect our oceans.
  • We have functional Protected Area Advisory Committees that provide local stakeholder oversight for each nature reserve. User groups can guide the City on prevailing issues that need to be addressed.

  • The City upgraded litter fences on the Big and Little Lotus Rivers to intercept solid waste before it gets into the important Zeekoevlei. These nets get cleaned multiple times a week.
  • The Hout Bay quick wins project comprises a series of catchment and stormwater infrastructure investments to protect the important Disa River from sewage inflows. Longer term investments are on the books.
  • At Milnerton Lagoon we overpump sewage from the Erica Road stormwater outlet. Last week a sandbag weir was built to further insulate the lagoon. Litter socks and nets will soon be placed on other stormwater outfalls.
  • Together with Shark Spotters and the Pristine Earth Collective, a series of litter socks along the Seapoint Promenade were installed to intercept solid waste before it gets to the ocean.
  • We have reviewed and expanded our inland water quality monitoring to the two Princess Vleis which are important cultural water bodies where many people get baptised, fish and swim.
  • Tons of water hyacinth have been cleared from the Rondevlei Nature Reserve for the first time in decades. Zeekoevlei was also cleared.
  • The Khayelitsha Wetlands Park was choked by bullrushes during Covid. After a site visit by the Wetlands Committee, this has been cleared to allow the Khayelitsha Canoe Club to paddle on open water again.
  • Cape Town was recently awarded Ramsar City Wetland Status. Our urban wetlands are of international importance. We welcome this international accreditation as we continue to conserve and restore for biodiversity and people.
  • I was honoured to participate in the NatureConnect River Wardens graduation ceremony. These environmentalists are now trained and qualified in urban waterway management. This is a public-private partnership for green jobs that is only possible in a place with good governance.
  • The City’s Livable Urban Waterway Programme has co-designed with communities a series of rehabilitation projects in the Sand River Catchment so that we can restore these dead spaces.
  • An incredible net alga (Hydrodiction africanum), not seen in hundreds of years on the Cape Flats, was rediscovered by conservation staff. We continue to protect the good condition of water bodies.
  • We supported the Netherlands Consulate Co-create Blue-Green City awards where young urbanists were able to showcase innovative design solutions
  • We will have catchment forums in all priority catchment areas by March 2023. Functional: Sand River, Hout Bay. Planned: Diep River (Milnerton), Zeekoe, Kuils River.
  • We signed the first public-private partnership agreement in water with the Litterboom Project. They now intend to expand their operations in Cape Town to clean up our waterways and create jobs in the circular economy.
  • I have initiated a #KnowYourRiver campaign to walk the length of all the key rivers in Cape Town to see for myself, with community and officials, the state of our waterways.
  • The Young Urbanists and the City of Cape Town held an Urban Mobility Forum with urban designers to discuss innovative ways to bring value-adding economic activity to our waterways.
  • I had so much fun recording a podcast with Dr Nikiwe Solomons, Bridget Pitt and Roland Postma, discussing ideas and approaches to community-led water governance.
  • We were able to show our support for our valued partners, the Friends of Liesbeek and the Friends of Zeekoevlei and Rondevlei, with reference letters for their fundraising purposes. These organisations show great custodianship for their local water.
  • We have developed international partnerships with the likes of the US consulate, University of Denver Colorado, and The Global Utilities of the World to share lessons and international best practices.
  • I am proud of the Clean Water Coalition in the Cape Town Council. Councillors are investing in and prioritising clean water. I’d like to thank Yusuf Mohamed, Mikhail Manuel, Carolynne Franklin, Kevin Southgate, Frances Lombaard, Marianne Niewoudt, Ronel Viljoen, Zahid Badroodien, Siseko Mbandezi, Eddie Andrews, Joy Solomon and others.

In government, progress is often not linear. Unexpected challenges and crises often distract from the direction and the focus of a programme or policy. Some of the interventions listed here are small in scale or symbolic in nature. However, they are foundational to our new approach to water governance which prioritises transparency and collaboration, design thinking, working with those who we instinctively may disagree with, and resilience.

Councillor Alex Lansdowne chairs the mayoral advisory committee for water quality in wetlands and waterways. Views expressed are not necessarily those of GroundUp.

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