Sidestep the sewage with New Zealand’s new pollutant tracker

Karekare beach, Auckland, New Zealand. Source: YSSHEN/Shutterstock

WHILE the world slowly wises up to the benefits of environmental protection and responsible waste management, beaches littered with trash or waters filled with pollutants are still a sad reality faced by many travelers.

Auckland, New Zealand, is hoping to change this, with the introduction of a new tool that allows visitors to know in advance the quality of water at each of their city beaches. Nicknamed the “poo tracker,” the SafeSwim website predicts and tracks the safety of Auckland waterways in real time.

Following decades of pollution and contamination plaguing the waterways of the country’s largest city, the site allows locals and visitors to pick which beach is safe before they set out.

pollution new zealand

SafeSwim shows in real-time which beaches are safe to swim at. Source: Auckland Council

“We’ve done some testing, and typically, if we get an overflow alert from the network, the website is updated within 10 minutes,” SafeSwim technical lead Martin Neale told the NZ Herald.

“The tagline we are running this summer is ‘Check before you swim’.”

Heavy rainfalls – like those that have been hitting the coastal city in recent weeks – can cause wastewater networks to become overwhelmed by stormwater and groundwater, leading to sewage overflows.

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Wet weather events also carry a “first flush” of stormwater runoff, which can be laden with solid and dissolved contaminants, such as trash and animal faeces.

“With that wastewater will also come all of the gross pollutants – the litter, the dental picks and tampons, the quite unmentionables that flow in,” Auckland council’s water manager Andrew Chin told RNZ.

The detailed animated map comes on the back of a number of significant beach closures this holiday period, including the shutdown of one of Auckland’s most popular swimming spots, Takapuna beach, on New Year’s Day due to contamination.

But beach and water pollution is far from a strictly New Zealand problem. The issue of plastic pollution in the oceans has come to the fore in recent months, culminating last month when nearly 200 countries signed a UN resolution to eliminate plastic pollution in the sea.

As estimated by the World Economic Forum, there is now a 1:2 ratio of plastic to plankton and, left unchecked, plastic will outweigh fish by 2050.

Currently, the amount of plastic in the oceans is estimated to be about 150 million tonnes – that’s roughly a fifth of the weight of the fish.

It is a problem that has plagued many of Asia Pacific’s most popular tourist spots. In December, the Indonesian island of Bali – for many an area synonymous with tropical paradise – declared a “garbage emergency” after its most popular beaches were inundated with a rising tide of waste.

Auckland is on path to fixing this scourge. On top of the SafeSwim initiative, the council has assigned US$4 billion to invest in infrastructure to tackle their problem of wastewater overflow and ensure safe and healthy beach areas for all.

As Auckland Mayor Phil Goff says: “It is an obligation that we all have to our children and future generations – to leave our environment in a better condition than we found it.”

This article originally appeared on our sister site Asian Correspondent