Tuesday, March 8, 2016


Dear Cape Town Ratepayers,
Johan van der Merwe

          Do you know that your City is spending millions moving sand dunes around at an obsolete, windswept rubbish dump site? And to make matters worse there is no prospect of this money dumping that is running at half a million a year or more ever ending.
          The dump at Witsands next to a popular surfing and kite surfing beach between Kommetjie and Scarborough not far from Cape Point ceased being used for the City’s refuse something like 30 years ago. It is nowhere near where anybody lives.
          But that hasn’t stopped it devouring money at this alarming rate.
          If you had been there in the last few weeks you couldn’t be blamed if you had thought that an open cast mining operation was on the go.
          The machinery being used consisted of two huge dump trucks with “Burma Plant Hire & Mining” on the side and a tracked bulldozer and excavator some of them weighing up to 50 tons. All these had to be carted to and from the scene on expensive low bed loaders.
          I have been going to Witsands on a regular basis for some years now and this year the array of expensive earth moving equipment trundling across this expanse of white sand seemed bigger than ever.
          They spent more than a month flattening dunes; building sand castles; smoothing them over and causing sand storms when the endemic strong winds were blowing.
          It took me three weeks to get an explanation from the Council for what appears to be an incredible waste of money when there are so many much more deserving causes among the City’s huge poverty stricken population.
          Even then I was still left with questions unanswered by Johan van der Merwe, the Democratic Alliance Mayoral Committee Member responsible for Environmental Planning.
          After my first emailed I sent him a subsequent one asking him to clarify some of his answers.
          He told me that the cost of managing this historic landfill site over the last 10 years was estimated at R500 000 per year and that included the cost of using the City’s machinery. Other extracts of our email conversations, with my comments in brackets, were as follows.
Jon: How much will the current work cost and how long will it go on for?
Van der Merwe: It will last for two to four weeks and the City’s machinery will be used so the cost is minimal. (Since when does it cost virtually nothing if you use your own machinery? And it's been going for more like six weeks or more)
New Question
Jon: What City machinery are you talking about? For weeks now the only machinery on site was supplied by Burma Plant Hire. From what I was told the total hire cost for these four machines is around R5 000 an hour and assuming they work an 8 hour day that’s R40 000 a day. So if this goes on for say 20 working days the cost is close to R1-million. Was this job put out to tender?
                           1st Picture
Van der Merwe: These machines are sourced and provided by the City’s Fleet Management Department and are not contracted specifically for this job, but as part of the City’s fleet needs (This vague answer gives the impression that these machines are permanently hired by the City. Cape Town based Burma Plant Hire was no help other than to refer me to the Council). Further more these are not costed at the rate suggested (Shouldn’t he have put me right by giving me the correct figures).
*    *    *
Jon: Surely the waste has long since rotted down so why is it necessary to keep putting this sand blanket over it?
                           2nd Picture
Van der Merwe: All organic waste has decomposed, however plastic, glass and other non-biodegradable materials exist in large quantities and will remain in perpetuity.
New question
Jon: This is well covered by the sand in an area where few people go so what is the point of continuing to waste a huge amount of ratepayer’s money in moving the sand around every year when there are far more urgent matters to attend to that need a lot of money. If, as you say, there are large amounts of non-biodegradable material which will remain “in perpetuity,” does this mean the City will be pouring an ever increasing amount of money into this defunct rubbish dump forever?
                           3rd Picture

                                    4th Picture

Van der Merwe: Every winter (this is a winter rainfall area) natural ponds build up at the back of the beach which breach the landfill site and open it. The works being done now avoid that outcome. The system is far more complicated than is generally understood as it is not simply about the amount of sand on top of the landfill but the entire dynamic system which includes a seasonal wetland and out flow.
*    *    *
Jon: What efforts have been made to cover the area with indigenous vegetation?
Van der Merwe: This is very challenging and almost impossible to do as the sand is naturally mobile and therefore even if this was to be a successful experience, ‘modifying’ this natural system would require several authorizations.
                          5th Picture
You can see in the foreground how well the vegetation grows
on the dunes when it it left alone. This excavator was enlarging 
the barren area by digging up plants with sand next to the road
(See 7th Picture) well away from the place where the refuse is 
buried. This was then taken in the dump trucks to just above
the beach (See 2nd Picture) where it was finally smoothed out
by the bulldozer
New question
Jon: What authorisations and from whom and at what cost?
Van der Merwe: This is Standard Operating Protocol as part of the landfill closure (If that’s the case what’s the problem, although this is not much of an explanation? Also why does he ignore the question of cost?).
*    *    *
Jon: By annually disturbing the dunes with heavy machinery and moving the sand around isn’t the Council just perpetuating the situation and with this going on there is absolutely no chance of the indigenous vegetation taking hold?
Van der Merwe: Sand naturally migrates and therefore it is unable to provide a stable and conducive environment for indigenous vegetation. Wind creates dunes and these naturally blow around, eventually causing waste to be exposed. The wind netting to be deployed, which will replace the brushwood used to date, (another additional cost) will limit excessive dune formation; keep a more permanent sand ‘blanket’ and also reduce annual operating requirements.
New question
Jon: It’s not true to say the sand doesn’t provide a stable environment for indigenous vegetation(See the 5th Picture from the top).
Van der Merwe: It is in fact true. This is a mobile sand system and old headland pass (A headland pass is a narrow waterway through a headland, but presumably if it is an “old” one it no longer runs. However on the one side of this Council made sand pit that covers an area of about 30 hectars there is a small stream that runs into the sea in winter and dries up in summer. There is quite thick vegetation on each side of this but it doesn’t go far on the one side because that’s where the sand has been dug up and moved around). It is not meant to be vegetated across the dune fields.
Jon: There are lots of parts of that Witsands area where sand dunes have clearly been covered by indigenous vegetation.
Van der Merwe: This only occurs at the back of the beach, which is not affected by the mobile sand system. This does not occur in the main mobile dune path.
Jon: The main reason, as I see it, that a lot of the area has not been covered by vegetation is because the Council has been moving the sand around every year and in addition the heavy machinery used has ploughed it up all over the place. I don't think plants could survive for long anywhere in these conditions. In the wind the current work is making sand storms which are probably blowing the sand back from where it has been moved.
                           6th Picture
                           7th Picture
Council made sand storms
He again repeated that it was not meant to have vegetation “across the dune fields” and that what I wrote about the wind was also not correct as the “sand travels in a northwest direction as directed by the southeast wind” whatever that means.
*    *    *
Jon: How can the City possibly justify spending this kind of money on an on-going basis on a RUBBISH DUMP THAT WAS CLOSED IN 1985 ACCORDING TO WHAT I WAS TOLD, when shack areas are going up in flames almost daily leaving the poor with a great deal of needs.
Van der Merwe: This is an extremely cost-effective measure of managing the landfill site. Without management the City will have to spend far greater amounts collecting all the waste that will be distributed when a breach occurs as well as the unsightly impact of exposed landfill on the beach. Please see the enclosed pics of this prior to the City’s management interventions. 
                           8th Picture
This is what happened, according to Johan, before the current
R500 000 a year plus scheme was adopted. This was not surprising
as there was no vegetation or anything else to hold this expanse of
fine white sand in place

        9th Picture

Furthermore it should be noted that the Witsands Landfill Project was designed and implemented as a job creation programme that, successfully over many years, has created employment in the form of brush wood collection, hedge row replacement and litter picking for the communities.
Of the annual budget to this project more than 60% goes directly to unskilled labour employment – this has been a very successful project (My underlining).
*    *    *
          From what Johan told me it means that of the R500 000 a year that has been spent on this dump in recent years R300 000 a year has gone to disadvantaged people.
I have been going there often in the last few years and in recent times I haven’t seen anybody, apart from the drivers of the earth moving equipment, working there.
          There are signs of brushwood used to try and stabilise the dunes showing above the sand in a few places, but this is now going to be replaced with netting, according to Johan, so the job of collecting this now falls away – not that I would imagine it as being a very lucrative occupation. Here is the netting being erected.
                           10th Picture

                           11th Picture

                           12th Picture
This was how this spider web of netting began
                           13th Picture
Then the web spread out to this before being spun out all
along the side of the beach
        The City has employed Vula Environmental Restoration, a firm that specialises in dealing with degraded and modified coastal dunes, to erect the nets.
             The person in charge of the work told me this was a "tried and tested" method of ensuring that the sand was blown on to the beach instead of inland. He said nothing else had worked so far (See also http: wasting more money)  
         WHAT AFTER 30 YEARS ?       
           When I suggested that the best solution was to cover the entire area with Port Jackson he laughed and said, "They're trying to get rid of that."
           He agreed that the cost of putting up this netting was "huge." It turned out to be R150 000.
           Witsands is designated a free running beach for dogs but he assured me that provision had been made for this with gaps in the net fences to enable animals to get out of the maze if they had to.  But they might need a Garmin to do this. 
          Although I only saw the initial stages of this work I was told about five kilometres of this netting will be erected in an area about 100 metres wide where the sand has been banked up next to the beach. 
          I wonder how many of these flimsy net fences will still be standing in six months time after sand has been blown up against them and whether they will be just as much of a failure as the brush wood.
          I haven’t a clue what Johan means when he said the project has provided an income for people doing “hedge row replacement and litter picking”. There are no hedges around there as far as I know. It’s all wild indigenous plants and bush and if the scheme has been so successful what litter would there have been to pick?
          You ratepayers must decide if it is prudent to spend R500 000 or more a year of your money on protecting an historic rubbish dump more or less in the middle of nowhere.
          As one myself I’m appalled. There surely must be a better way of dealing with this like diverting run-off from the mountain side into the existing stream at the side of the dump and making sure that all the dunes are well covered with 
This new growth
was showing just
a couple of months
after this area was
ravaged by fire and
it didn't need rain
to get it going

          The obvious solution as I see it would be to plant the whole area over the dump with Port Jackson(Acasia saligna) willow. Alright I know it has been declared an invasive alien but it has proved to be very effective for holding sand dunes in place. It also recovers quickly from bush fires which are common around Cape Town in summer.
          Acasia saligna is a rapid growing, dense spreading small tree or shrub that seeds itself prolifically and can grow over a meter a year when young. Many years ago it was introduced from its native Australia to hold the sand down on the Cape Flats, another part of Cape Town that is similar to Witsands in that it borders the sea.
          It then got itself a bad name because is spread all over the place from the flats to the mountain sides where it took over from the indigenous fynbos that is a unique variety of flora found nowhere else in the world.
          In this case planting Acasia saligna would be a lesser evil than spending millions that could be put to better use like uplifting the poor. In any case it wouldn't be replacing the local vegetation as there is nothing growing over the dump anyway. 
                         14th Picture 

         Before horrified fynbos lovers start protesting at my idea they should first have a look at the mountain side (See 14th Picture above) next to the Ocean View township on Kommetjie road opposite where I live. This is just over the mountain from where Witsands is.
It's spectacular when
in flower

         It is covered with a veritable forest of Port Jackson which the Council does nothing about.  If the Witsands dump looked like this nobody would ever have to be concerned that it would wash away again. There would also be no sand blowing around and no need for any further maintenance work on it - a saving of millions for the City Council.
         Even now there are already clumps of Port Jackson growing on the dunes at Witsands (It can be seen in the foreground of the 5th Picture).
          Jon, a Consumer Watchdog trying to clear the sand from his eyes after walking his dogs on Witsands beach and wondering how much his rates and electricity bills will go up in the next couple of months.          

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