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Friday Jun 14, 2013

Durban beaches to fly blue flags again

Five years after pulling out of the international Blue Flag beach excellence scheme, Durban has done an about-turn and rejoined the programme.

The decision, announced by mayor James Nxumalo last night, has been widely welcomed and is expected to go a long way towards restoring confidence among local bathers and tourists about the cleanliness of sea water on the Golden Mile.

Initially, the city is hoping to retrieve blue flags at four local beaches (uShaka, eMdloti tidal area, eMdloti main and Umgababa) and, at a later stage, the main beach at uMhlanga Rocks and Westbrook on the North Coast.

However, before the flags can be hoisted, the first four beaches will have Blue Flag "pilot status" for a year until the city can demonstrate that the city complies with all 33 quality criteria required by Blue Flag International, which currently recognises 3 850 beaches and marinas in 48 countries across Europe, South Africa, Morocco, Tunisia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada and the Caribbean.

The Blue Flag scheme dates from 1985, when several French coastal municipalities were awarded the flags for complying with sewage treatment and bathing water quality criteria after mounting concern about the deterioration of water quality at several Mediterranean beaches.

The scheme is run by an NGO, the Foundation for Environmental Education, and effectively provides an independent guarantee that beaches comply with strict criteria on water quality, environmental education, lifeguard training, safety, and other issues.

Durban pulled out of the scheme in 2008, during the tenure of former city manager Michael Sutcliffe, who argued that Blue Flag administrators were applying "double standards" when comparing the cleanliness of sea water in Durban with that in Europe.

However, if Sutcliffe had not pulled out of the scheme in a huff, it is likely that all of Durban's formerly accredited beaches would have ended up losing their blue flags, because of the high levels of sewage contamination in several areas.

Problems emerged in 2006, when four local beaches failed to comply with sewage pollution standards.

Blue Flag also stipulates that an independent laboratory should be responsible for testing all sea water samples. Sutcliffe insisted that the city's own laboratory technicians should do the tests.

Now, however, it is understood that all samples will be analysed by the CSIR, rather than the city, to meet the requirement for independent tests.

Nxumalo said that since Durban pulled out of the scheme in 2008, there had been a number of calls from the public, hospitality and business entities, as well as the provincial and national governments, for the eThekwini Municipality to re-enter the programme.

In January, the council resolved to re-enter the Blue Flag scheme this year, and it is believed that city officials formally submitted an application to re-enter the scheme on a pilot basis two weeks ago.

"Our biggest challenge is undoubtedly the state of our water quality at our beaches," Nxumalo said.

"A critical review of the city's water quality results has narrowed the potential pilot Blue Flag beaches to six candidates."

Durban Chamber of Commerce chief executive Andrew Layman expressed his delight at the news, and offered the municipality his full support.

"We feel very strongly that some, if not all, of Durban's beaches should have their Blue Flag status reinstated," Layman said.

"As an international symbol, Blue Flag status indicates to tourists the quality of both the water and the amenities at our beaches."

The head of Umhlanga Tourism, Peter Rose, said re-entering the programme was a step in the right direction and he supported it. But he questioned whether Blue Flag status was recognised by US tourists, who he said made up the second-largest group of tourists to the country.

Blue Flag was mainly recognised in Europe, and Durban had established itself as a premier tourist destination before Blue Flag had begun.

"Having Blue Flag beaches is not the be all and end all," he said, "but I would still rather we had them than not."

The Mercury

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