Overview: Blue Flag Beaches in South Africa

Submitted by: Jonathan Ramayia, Monday, August 5, 2013

The Blue Flag Programme is an international standard for measuring the quality of beaches in four different categories, namely, environmental management; safety and amenities; water quality and; environmental education and information. The Programme has become one of the most recognised Eco labels since it started in Europe in 1987 and is run by the international, non-governmental, non-profit organisation FEE (the Foundation for Environmental Education). South Africa joined the programme in 2001 and became the first country outside of Europe to do so.

To date South Africa has racked up over 43 Blue Flag sites, “I prefer to use the term Blue Flag site instead of Blue Flag beaches, since the accreditation is given not just to beaches but also marinas and whale-watching boats”, says Ted Knott, of WESSA. Knott is the National Manager of the Blue Flag Programme and WESSA is the national authority responsible for ensuring accredited beaches adhere to the standards and assessing the applications from municipalities and other authorities around the country who wish to receive Blue Flag status for their beaches.

Sunset at one of the country's more recognisable Blue Flag beaches, Cape Town's Camps Bay (Image supplied by Ted Knott)

The benefits of having a Blue Flag hoisted above a beach are primarily economic, says Knott, since the Blue Flag has become the symbol of quality recognised by tourists and tour companies throughout the world. “It is an eco-label, and the status and pride associated with it, that municipalities can say, I have a Blue Flag beach, where I conduct environmental education and stand here with pride, with all other sites around the world”, he says.

Thirty three Blue Flag criteria over four categories

There are currently thirty three criteria over four categories on which the Blue Flag beaches are assessed. The four broad categories are water quality, environmental management, safety and security and environmental education and information

  1. Environmental management
  2. Safety and security
  3. Environmental education and information
  4. Water Quality

Knott emphasises that the Blue Flag beach criteria are the minimum criteria and a national programme can choose to have stricter criteria than those listed in the Programme.

Water Quality

“Water quality is one of the big categories and we go out to site, take samples and have this tested independently by an accredited lab in order to see whether the water meets international water standards,” says Knott. According to the criteria, the managing authority must take samples every thirty days and information about water quality must be displayed. One of the more important water quality criteria concerns the microbiological content of the water, and places a limit on the amount of Escherichia coli (faecal coli bacteria) and intestinal enterococci (streptococci) that can be present for every 100 ml of water. The table below shows the limits for both types of bacteria in both coastal and transitional waters and inland waters.


Coastal and transitional waters

Limit values

Inland waters Limit values

Escherichia coli


Colibacteria )

250 cfu/100 ml

500 cfu/100 ml




100 cfu/100 ml

200 cfu/100 ml

  • cfu = colony forming units (of bacteria)

Environmental Management

In terms of environmental management, the criteria covers a very broad range including, provision of waste separation and management at the beach; protection of algal vegetation and natural debris found on the beach; maintenance of beach buildings, promotion of sustainable transport in the beach area and monitoring of coral reefs in the vicinity of the beach. Other criteria include enforcing all prevailing interdicts such as those on camping, fires and allowing domestic animals in certain areas of the beach.

: Brenton Beach, Brenton-On-Sea. One of the important purpose of the Blue Flag beach is to protect marine environments (Image supplied by Ted Knott)

Safety and security

Covering safety and security are the provision of adequate number of lifeguards and sufficient lifesaving equipment; availability of first aid equipment; an emergency plan to cope with pollution risks; management of beach users and uses of the beach to prevent conflict and accidents and; safety measures including pedestrian crossing, walkways and handrails.

Adequate lifeguards and lifesaving equipment are important Blue Flag criteria, as seen on Humewood Beach in Port Elizabeth (Image supplied by Ted Knott)

Environmental education and information

A Blue Flag beach should be immediately visible but there a number of indications that will make it obvious for beach goers, including both the Blue Flag post as well as the WESSA flag. Additionally, there should be a Blue Flag noticeboard which gives information about the Blue Flag programme, a map of the site and the facilities as well as emergency numbers. In addition, the Beach Manager’s telephone number will be displayed on the notice board, and Knott advises that if there is something wrong with the beach, that beach users make use of the number provided. Managing authorities must also ensure that they educate staff and the public on information relating to local ecosystems and environmental phenomena which much be displayed on the beach.

Environmental Education Centre at Kariega Beach, Kenton-On-Sea (Image supplied by Ted Knott)

For Knott and his small team, the monitoring and assessment of these various criteria is very much on site, and requires traveling the length of South Africa’s over 2500km coastline, which extends from Namibia on the west coast to Mozambique on the east coast. As co-ordinator of the Blue Flag programme, WESSA’s responsibility entails water sampling, unannounced monitoring of Blue Flag beaches throughout the year, assessing new applications, mentoring, capacity-building and environmental education.

Beach users at Buffalo Bay near Knysna can learn about various marine life that visit their beach (Image supplied by Ted Knott)

Knott emphasises that the onus is still on the municipality or jurisdiction to manage their Blue Flag beaches but also notes that WESSA works hard to provide assistance to these authorities wherever they might need it since environmental education is a large component of the Blue Flag system. “We assist in monitoring the effectiveness of their environmental programmes and have also developed some guidelines to aid their beach management,” explains Knott.

Regional differences regarding Blue Flag Beaches

One of the obstacles to the Blue Flag programme in South Africa is significant differences between the east and west coast of the country. Few countries in the world have sub-tropical waters flowing on the one side and polar flowing on the other, an issue that WESSA has brought to light, notes Knott, “we have tabled the issue of tropical water versus cold water before but until the World Health Organisation reviews their stance there is no differentiation and we have to work within this framework”. 

In South Africa, currently eight beaches in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) have Blue Flag beach status when compared to twenty three in the Western Cape.  Part of the difficulty is maintaining water quality standards in beaches with warmer water as it is generally more challenging than maintaining water quality in beaches with colder water. The implication of tropical water versus cold water will become more of an issue as more countries from the Southern hemisphere start to join the Blue Flag programme, “South Africa will not be alone on this one in the coming years”, says Knott.

Another challenge for KZN is the year round tourism season in the province means that KZN beaches are monitored for the full twelve months. By contrast because of the short tourism season in the Western Cape the monitoring period is only four months.  Knott argues, however, that even though it is far more difficult to maintain Blue Flag standards all year round, it is in the interests of KZN to do this since year round beach tourism is part of KZNs tourism offering.

Some municipalities in KZN have found the Blue Flag beach programme can be a double-edged sword, as beaches in Durban and Margate received unwanted publicity after losing their Blue Flag beach status. “It takes courage to be part of the Programme, if something happens and your beaches lose Blue Flag status, everyone will know about it, even though there might be lots of factors beyond your control,” explains Knott.

Despite these challenges eThekwini Municipality recently announced that it would be putting forward six Durban beaches for Blue Flag status over the next two years including Umdloti Tidal area, Umdloti Main, Ushaka and Umgagaba for the 2013/14 season, and Westbrook and Umhlanga Main for the 2014/2015 season. 

“Our biggest challenge is undoubtedly the state of our water quality at our beaches. A critical review of the City’s water quality results has narrowed the potential pilot Blue Flag beaches to six candidates”, said eThekwini Mayor James Nxumalo in a press statement last month.

eThekwini Municipality has rejoined the Blue Flag programme after having challenges with water quality in the past (Image supplied by Jonathan Ramayia)

Knott expects that the number of Blue Flag beaches in KZN will rise dramatically in the next few years, “eThekwini hasn’t been in the programme, once eThekwini is back on board [the] situation will improve dramatically. We are thrilled to have eThekwini back on board and look forward to working with everyone there”. Apart from eThekwini, Knott notes that other municipalities in KZN are making progress, including Umdoni and Umhlathuze.

Support from government

The Blue Flag beaches are supported by national government indirectly through the Working for Coasts programme which facilitates more effective management of Blue Flag beaches, although Knott notes that there has not been direct funding as yet.

“Blue Flag beaches do provide access to other opportunities and funding”, says Knott. A direct example of funding came from the KZN Province’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism who provided funding to two beaches Alkinstrand in Richards Bay and Southport in Hibiscus Coast Municipality. KZN Province also confirmed that Blue Flag beaches are “policy of choice” when they made allowances for including the Programme in their Working for Coasts strategy, which Knott believes demonstrates their commitment to the programme, says Knott.

In spite of the beaches occurring in national parks and protected areas such as the iSimangiliso Wetland Park, only one Blue Flag beach in the entire country falls within a national park, Wilderness Beach in the Garden Route National Park. “The day we get a Blue Flag beach at St. Lucia will be an auspicious occasion”, says Knott. One of the concerns at these beaches is that there are no lifeguards, a criteria of the Blue Flag programme.

Knott and his team take an active approach in recruiting beaches, “it isn’t part of the job, but our approach is to get the relevant people and municipal staff involved. We try to get out there and always have potential Blue Flag beaches in mind”. The work is paying off. According to Knott, this year alone saw nearly 50 applications from management authorities around the country wanting to join the Blue Flag Programme, though these will be reviewed both by WESSA and the Blue Flag international jury, he adds.

For more information visit the Blue Flag South Africa website

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Jonathan Ramayia