With the Hansa Fish River Canoe marathon, and its precursor warm up event the Pre-Fish occupying paddlers attention this month, organisers are closely monitoring the water quality in the river and urging paddlers to take precautions to safeguard any open wounds.
Last year a Cape paddler was hospitalised after a gash on his leg became infected, and tests revealed that he had picked up a water borne bacteria during the race.
In response to this incident, the Department of Water Affairs has started regular testing on the river, and the race medics have been briefed to be on hand to assist paddlers to disinfect any scratches or gashes suffered during the race.
Over the past six months tests have been conducted along the Great Fish and Brak rivers in order to determine the quality of the water. The results highlighted the presence of E.coli in the water but found that generally the quality of the water was still within safe norms for canoeing.
Samples were taken from just above and below Grassridge Dam, at the Brak River weir and below Cradock Weir and tested for a number of different elements including ammonia levels, faecal coliforms, E. coli and the pH levels in the river.
The ammonia levels that were recorded at the four sample sites in August were higher than the levels that were recorded in March. Although this could be of concern the people responsible for the testing suggest that the levels of ammonia are not of any risk to the paddlers and have increased due to agricultural effluents.
The pH of the Fish River is stable and it is well within the suggested bracket of 6-9 and over the last five months the levels have only risen slightly.
The area of concern for paddlers is the E. coli levels in the water. Three of the four sites returned results well within safe levels, while only the results below Cradock Weir showed higher levels of E.coli bacteria. The tests in March at Cradock weir returned a reading of 120 counts per 100ml, well inside the safe limit, but recent tests have been up to 610 counts per 100ml.
“The levels of Escherichia coli (pathogen) and faecal coliforms (indicator organisms) are not excessive compared to other river systems in South Africa,” concluded the latest report from the Department of Water Affairs.
In terms of the faecal coliforms in the river they are not as high as the E. coli but there is still an element of risk at the sampling point below the Cradock Weir. The levels that were captured in March were at 146 counts per 100ml and then in the August study they had increased to 750 counts per 100ml. The chances of gastrointestinal health effects are still relatively high and can be expected at these sorts of levels.
The ultimate outcome of the tests was that the river is in a fairly good state and the quality of the water is of a good enough quality that the paddlers should not feel in danger. With the higher levels of E. coli it is important that paddlers practice precaution when they are on the river and they make sure that they use every opportunity to disinfect any wounds that they might pick up as well as avoid drinking the water.
While the cautious approach from the race organisers and the local DWAF officials have been welcomed, the current readings of the water quality compare favourably with those used by the organisers of the Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal.
Driven by the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) a set of water quality standards have been put in place specifically for canoeing. The Dusi standards state that any E.coli reading below 2000 counts per 100ml is “excellent canoeing quality”, and up to 25 000 parts per 100 ml is “tolerable for canoeing.”
The race organisers are confident that the water poses no significant threat to the race, but have urged paddlers who suffer cuts and any open wounds to have these treated by the race medical personnel at the finish of each day of the race.
The race organisers have also created a new page on the race website where all the information from the regular water testing by the Department of Water Affairs will be displayed.
The Hansa Fish River Canoe marathon takes place on Friday 27 and Saturday 28 September. More information can be found at www.fishmarathon.org.za