Paddlers highlight ‘rotten’ state of city’s waterways

An example of the litter paddlers need to get through.

Kayakers taking part in this year’s Peninsula Paddle will use cameras to document the rotten state of city waterways from Muizenberg to Milnerton.

UCT’s Future Water Institute will lead the 11th paddle on World Rivers Day, September 27.

The event, which raises awareness of the plight of Cape Town’s waterways, involves the Cape Town Environmental Education Trust (CTEET) in Westlake, the Friends of the Liesbeek, the Khayelitsha Canoe Club, the Zandvlei Trust and the City of Cape Town (represented by the Zandvlei Nature Reserve).

According to Dr Kevin Winter, representing the Future Water Institute, the event started with four people who wanted to see if it was possible to traverse the Cape Peninsula from Muizenberg to Woodstock beaches in kayaks.

A route via canals, rivers and lakes was easy to identify on the map, but the possibility of paddling or pulling kayaks had never been tested before.

The bigger aim, says Dr Winter, was to challenge the City of Cape Town and its citizens about the pollution in the waterways.

“At the heart of the litter problem are two major failures: a systemic failure in which large parts of the city have inadequate waste services, and human behaviour where little thought is given to the consequences of litter and other waste. Yet, things could be different, but not without serious challenges.”

Dr Winter believes that it will take more than a paddle to change the history of the city and the current state of the waterways, but the paddle is a start.

“Imagine a city where citizens could safely traverse its waterways in clean water and where the surrounding rivers and canalised banks offer safe, pleasant public spaces.”

In March, CTEET launched the River Ambassadors programme, which trains and employs young people in neighbourhoods near rivers.

Dr Anthony Roberts, the organisation’s CEO, says creativity is needed to use the green economy to create jobs for a semi-skilled workforce in a country with high unemployment.

“For people to see nature as the solution has multiple benefits in building that relationship with the natural world,” he says.

Dr Winter says valuable lessons have been learnt in the past 10 years.

“When the first Peninsula Paddle took place in 2010, conditions were so dire that the paddlers coined the phrase, ‘The health of the city is seen in its waterways’. It was a difficult journey for these paddlers with large sections of the route blocked by solid waste and the overgrowth of weeds. Parts were simply unnavigable.”

According to Dr Winter, the paddle route was purposefully chosen to highlight the city’s poorer neighbourhoods.

The paddlers talked to people along the way to understand how the waterways affected them, and Dr Winter says this led to a greater understanding of how we are all connected to the rivers and canals – litter going into a stormwater drain in one part of the city reaches the canals and the sea.

Healthy blue and green corridors can help to bridge social and economic divisions in the city, Dr Winter argues.

Lockdown conditions mean fewer people can take part in this year’s paddle and fewer paddlers will be responsible for paddling each of the four legs of the traditional journey, which starts at Zandvlei in the early hours of Sunday September 27.

Each paddler will carry cameras and recording equipment. The aim is to make a short documentary on the state of the waterways from Muizenberg to Milnerton. Along the route, the paddlers will take water samples to test for bacteria, nutrients and heavy metals and compare these results with water samples from previous years.