Two KZN companies have just won a four-year battle to fix a dangerously failing storm sewer

  • Four years and many broken promises later, a KwaZulu-Natal municipality is now facing a court order to repair a storm sewer in Umzinto.
  • A local business and its owner claim that the failure of the drainage system causes a wall to collapse.
  • Umdoni Municipality promised to do something to fix the problem, then said they had no money, then denied there was a problem.
  • He now has four months to put things right.
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It took four years, a technical inspection, numerous meetings and letters, and a trial. But two KwaZulu-Natal companies have won a court order to force their local municipality to fix a storm drain on a hilly road, hopefully before it kills someone.

The Pietermaritzburg District Court this week criticized the municipality of Umdoni, which is responsible for the town of Umzinto, for ignoring the dangerous situation caused by its failing infrastructure, and awarded punitive costs against it.

The municipality now has four months to appoint a contractor to ensure that a small part of its drainage system “is fit for purpose and that, in the normal course of events, stormwater won’t escape.”

That’s all the companies, an investment company that owns property in the city and the cash-and-carry store, have been asking for since 2018.

The cash-and-carry warehouse sits on a site dug into the foot of a hill that has 800 meters of rain collection road that makes a sharp bend just before the commercial buildings.

The companies described the stormwater system from which it is nominally served as being “more remarkable for the amount of water that escapes from the pipes which form part of it, which are either holed, clogged, broken or displaced, than for the amount of stormwater that the pipes hold and move away from the fill,” the court said.

This means that sand is regularly washed away from a crucial retaining wall, bringing it closer to collapse.

A view of the site from 2010, via Google Street view.

In October 2018, the municipality agreed to repair the stormwater drainage system. He does not have. In November 2020, lawyers for the companies were warning of serious security implications. This brought a few city officers to the site, after which nothing happened, again.

So the business owners hired a specialist company to carry out a camera survey of the stormwater system and shared the result – complete with photos of intruding tree roots and diagrams of what went wrong – with the municipality.

The municipality did nothing, until it was threatened with legal action. Then he first named a contractor who said he couldn’t do the job, followed by a contractor who thought his job was just a pipe replacement, but was apparently never properly named and never started the work.

In August 2021, with legal action already underway, the municipality said its “budget cannot meet the repair in this fiscal year”.

When the case finally came to court, however, the municipality flatly denied that its infrastructure was responsible for the problems with the wall. Quoting an expert she never identified, she said there were no cracks in a cracked road and there was no vegetation where there were plants.

The municipality then requested an oral evidence hearing to resolve the factual disputes, but never said what it disputed.

The municipality also argued that the real problem was a road that was tilted in such a way that water flowed from it towards the retaining wall. This having always been the case, according to the municipality, it is the fault of the engineers who built the wall for not having taken into account the water which would flow towards the wall.

However, photos showed that the road had actually tilted the other way, but changed shape when its foundation collapsed.

His conduct did not please the Municipality of Umdoni to try Judge Rob Mossop.

“He has, by his conduct, dragged this matter out unnecessarily for years,” Mossop said.

“He said he would act, then failed to act. He ignored what he recognized to be a potentially dangerous situation and put the lives and physical integrity of his constituents at risk. This is not not the service our country demands of a municipality. Such conduct is unbecoming of an institution meant to serve the people.”

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