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Monday Dec 10, 2012

Durban's U-turn on Blue Flags

Durban has done an about-face and will be trying to get some of its beaches accredited again with the internationally approved Blue Flag beach grading programme next year.

Durban's popular North Beach, which was packed with bathers yesterday.

There was controversy four years ago when the city pulled out of the programme.

City manager S'bu Sithole told The Mercury in an interview that the municipality was reviewing its position on Blue Flags after consulting stakeholders in the tourism industry.

Blue Flag status is awarded to beaches that meet international standards of excellence in safety and security, cleanliness, water quality, environmental information and management.

Durban withdrew from the Blue Flag programme in 2008, after the municipal manager of the time, Michael Sutcliffe, criticised the inconsistent application of standards and what he said was inconclusive research on the use of Blue Flag water quality measures in subtropical waters.

He claimed that certain bacteria were likely to survive longer in the warmer Indian Ocean temperatures off Durban compared with the cooler seas in the Cape and that this was skewing the results.

The decision generated widespread comment, including criticism that the municipality was incapable of maintaining clean seas because of frequent sewer and stormwater contamination.

Last week Ted Knott, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa's national coastal project manager and co-ordinator, said the international Blue Flag testing standards were beyond reproach.

He said eThekwini's argument that the criteria used to award the country's beaches Blue Flag status did not fit Durban's warmer waters "does not hold water".

Knott said he had approached Blue Flag International about the concerns eThekwini had raised.

"We are aligned with the World Health Organisation and we abide by its criteria. They have not recognised any difference between cold and warm waters as far as microbiological indicators are concerned," he said.

Knott added that beaches on the Hibiscus Coast were accredited and there was not much difference between the weather conditions in eThekwini and the south coast.

After pulling out of the Blue Flag programme, eThekwini implemented its own water quality standard which does not appear to conform to World Health Organisation guidelines.

The city's water and sanitation head, Neil Macleod, has previously said the city's laboratory is accredited by the South African National Accreditation System and runs stringent quality tests that check the quality of water for drinking. Macleod could not be reached for comment.

Sithole said although reapplying for the programme could cost a bit more, after careful consideration he was convinced that it was something the city needed to do.

"Next year we should start the process of re-entering some of our beaches into the Blue Flag programme. There is no rational reason why we shouldn't. After speaking to people in the tourism sector it's clear to me that it is something people want," he said.

There are eight Blue Flag beaches in KwaZulu-Natal, seven on the Hibiscus Coast and Alkantstrand in Richards Bay.

KwaZulu-Natal Economic Development and Tourism MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu announced last year that the province should adopt and pilot one common "beach management classification system" that was internationally accredited.

Mabuyakhulu first tabled the proposal in April saying that, once a fully fledged policy was in place, all KwaZulu-Natal municipalities with beaches would have to adhere to the system.

Mabuyakhulu's spokesman, Bheko Madlala, said the policy was in place and he advocated the establishment of a committee comprising all coastal municipalities to ensure that KwaZulu-Natal's beaches conformed to Blue Flag standards. He pointed out that the Blue Flag programme was voluntary. However, the department was in the process of establishing a Provincial Beach Tourism Management Committee to oversee the implementation of the policy including ensuring readiness for beaches that could be put forward for the pilot phase of the Blue Flag accreditation.

The Mercury


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