There was a little picturesque seaside village called Klein Brakrivier, which in English means ‘Little Salt Marsh River’. It lay at the western end of the Garden Route in the Fairest Cape. My family travelled every summer holiday to this idyllic seaside spot to visit my paternal grandmother. 

The concrete bridge, which was built in 1954 to replace the old railway bridge across the Klein Brakrivier, and the R102 bridge running parallel to it, which was built later when the road was upgraded, can clearly be seen in the centre of this photo.

Ouma’s house was on top of a milkwood-covered dune, overlooking the broad sandy flood plain of the river. Upstream we could watch the trains crossing on the much-loved old iron railway bridge, while downstream was the sea, with sandy beaches and rock pools filled with marine life. 

In the 1940s and ‘50s Kleinbrak, as we called it, was a tiny village with no more than 100 or so dwellings, mostly holiday homes. There was no electricity and no running water. We used oil lamps and candles, and collected rainwater from the roof in tanks and used a ‘long drop’. Every day an old man on a donkey cart came to collect the ‘slops buckets’ which he emptied at the slops pit on the salt marsh between ouma’s house and the railway line. 

There were many marshy areas around the village in those days. We thought nothing of them, except as wasteland. And that’s how they were treated by everyone, especially the various government departments. Those were the days before we were aware of the ecological importance of biodiversity, much less the critical ecosystem services from nature on which life depends.

In fact the Klein Brak Estuary (for it is an open estuary most of the time) is one of the most crucial estuary-wetland-salt marsh areas on the Southern Cape coast. 

What is a salt marsh?

Salt marshes are coastal wetlands that are flooded and drained by salt water brought in by the tides. They are important as nurseries for migrant marine fish species. An estuary is a place where freshwater meets the sea. The mixing of freshwater and seawater creates a unique and productive environment with lots of diverse flora and fauna. 

The slow movement of saltwater inland and the gentle flow of freshwater from the watershed bring fine sediments that settle out as mud. This environment is called a mudflat. The mud builds up over time and eventually may rise above the high tide line, at which point a salt marsh habitat develops. Plants in the salt marsh are unique because, in order to survive, they must be tolerant of saline (salty) conditions and being submerged during some high tides.

Long before environmental issues were taken seriously, Dr Allan Heydorn did a baseline study of all estuaries in South Africa. Klein Brak Estuary was ranked equal to, and aesthetically higher than, the Knysna Estuary. 

Declining health of Klein Brak Estuary

Kleinbrak was too special not to attract masses of people. In the 1960s milkwoods were uprooted, dunes flattened, and the town ‘developed’. 

Conservation and protection of the Klein Brak Estuary became an extremely high priority. However, according to the 2017 draft Environmental Management Plan for the estuary, “a very small proportion of the vegetation is protected, and is critically endangered… and is under severe pressure from coastal development and upstream activities”.

Furthermore, “The Klein Brak River Estuary is exhibiting a decline in ecosystem wellbeing. If the (development) pressures are not controlled, and reversed in the case of the destruction of the salt marshes and the culverts in the upper reaches, the Klein Brak River Estuary will become a largely degraded estuary”. 

In 2007 Turpie and Clark assessed the Klein Brak Estuary to be of average importance and ranked it at 93rd in the country. But worryingly, it recently slipped further to being rated 115th out of 283 estuaries. 

What happened? 

The trouble started in the1950s when several ad hoc engineering projects were proposed and all approved by government institutions, in the name of ‘development’. Municipal and state infrastructure was built, apparently without considering the ecological impact on the estuary.  

In 1954 the old railway bridge was replaced by the present concrete bridge. The stanchions of the old bridge were not removed, and together with the many footings of the new bridge, they now impede the flow of the river and trap sea sand – almost the entire river is choked up. With the building of the new bridge many concrete structures were left in the river itself, causing an upwelling of sand which blocks the flow of tidal water.

In the 1980s work began on a new N2 National Highway. Tonnes of road infill were dumped into the estuary and into the tributaries, further blocking the flow of tidal water. Later the regional R102 road was upgraded, and a new bridge built just inland of the N2 bridge. The two bridges ran parallel to one another through the Kleinbrak River  but, lo and behold, the piers of the bridges were not aligned, causing the water to swirl in opposite directions. 

In 1980, the rapidly expanding town required an additional Water Treatment Works (WTW).  The Municipality decided to put this facility on the banks of the main tributary of the Klein Brak River. Out of sight and tucked away neatly from public eyes, this large WTW was equipped with two sludge dams and a too-small pump that often failed. Sludge water from this facility caused reeds to increase that further choked the water flow of the tributary and estuary.

Appalling as this seems in hindsight, remember that we did not have laws like the National Environment Management Act to protect the environment until 1998. Nor were there as many civil society organisations that spoke for nature. 

In 2008, the Kleinbrak WTW was upgraded, and an Environmental Authorisation was issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA). The Municipality was ordered to remove the reeds and the filling that had been dumped in the estuary, in order to allow a better flow of water. However, this Environmental Assessment apparently lapsed before the Municipality had even started the work.

This WTW used ferric chloride to clarify the water, and the waste was pumped into the sludge dams, which often overflowed into the estuary. Millions of litres of wastewater with sludge were periodically discharged into the estuary, turning the salt marsh orange. A subsequent change to aluminium sulphate, turned the estuary black when it was dumped.

In 2012, this WTW facility was upgraded once again. It appears that the Municipality built the new sludge dam without an Environmental Impact Assessment. A local Community Forum managed to get the discharge stopped, and the Municipality now pumps this wastewater to the Hartenbos Sewage WWTW. But… when that facility is too full, waste continues to flow into the Klein Brak River. 

The overall result of all this is the severe degradation of the estuary, aggravated by developments within the estuarine functional zone, weir construction in the tributaries, nutrient inputs from agricultural activities, over-fishing pressures and human disturbance of estuarine birds.

How is this allowed?  

Oh, easy – when few people care, and most people don’t even know what is going on. 
After the disasters of the two train bridges, the building of the N2, the R102 upgrade, the WTW and accompanying sludge dams, two government institutions then proceeded to place a total of seven huge concrete water pipes right through the estuary and all three tributaries, further blocking the flow of water. Alien reed beds now choke up this once thriving and functional special river system. Nature is dying a slow death there in full public view.

Whale Coast Conservation cares

The lesson is clear. Passing laws, appointing officials and even going through Public Participation Processes is not enough, unless there are independent watch-dog bodies following every move – and supported by a concerned public.

When it comes to our Whale Coast environment, Whale Coast Conservation keeps watch. SA’s excellent environmental laws are there to protect nature, and WCC’s EcoWatch team attempts to ensure that all developments in the Overstrand comply with legislation – not just to the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law.


About the Author

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Whale Coast Conservation passionately lives by its slogan “Caring for your environment”.

Its small staff and volunteers are dedicated to

  • raising community and visitor awareness of the unique, biodiverse natural resources of the Cape Whale Coast region and
  • to projects that convert awareness into practical actions that lead towards living sustainably.

WCC ensures expert representation in public participation processes that contribute to environmental and developmental policies and legislation.  We monitor regional development; and ensure compliance with legislation and guidelines.

WCC increases general public awareness of sustainability through environmental education, citizen-science research projects, community projects and campaigns.

WCC communicates with its audience through exhibitions, signage, technology demonstrations, workshops, talks, film shows, newsletters and articles.

WCC places emphasis on educating future generations through its Youth Environment Programme (YEP).  YEP is offered to 24 schools in its target area with a total of over 10,000 learners.

WCC facilitates schools’ participation in special events such as Earth Day, Walking for Water, Arbor Day and Coastal Clean-ups.

WCC facilitates educator development programmes to improve the capacity of educators to offer informed environmental content in their lessons across all learning streams.

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