Reports paint worrying picture of state of water, say experts
While the quality of major metropolitan municipalities' drinking water is generally good, about 46% of water in the country is poor or not microbiologically safe to drink.
This is according to the 2023 Blue Drop report released by the department of water and sanitation on Tuesday, which details the findings regarding the quality of drinking water.
This is based on water quality tests carried out by municipalities themselves during the 2021/2022 municipal financial year.
The report says 54% of the system achieved "excellent" or "good" outcomes, while 46% had poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance.
The overall performance trend indicates a severe regression from 2014 to 2023, especially with regard to microbiological complianceBlue Drop Report
"The overall performance trend indicates a severe regression from 2014 to 2023, especially with regard to microbiological compliance," it says.
The department released three water reports on Tuesday:
- the 2023 full Blue Drop Report provides an assessment of drinking water quality;
- the No Drop Report focuses on water losses and non-revenue water in all municipalities in the country; and
- the Green Drop Progress Assessment Report provides an update on the performance of wastewater management systems at the municipal level.
The Blue Drop report indicated during the audit period, 14 water service authorities did not report water quality data to the department or provide any other evidence that they have been testing their water quality.
The department issued non-compliance notices to those municipalities, instructing them to issue advisory notices to their residents that their water might not be safe to drink if it has not been properly tested
It said the department followed up with these water services authorities (WSAs) and some indicated they are in the process of appointing laboratories, some commenced with sampling, and others provided evidence of testing and achieving drinking water quality.
The department's director-general Sean Phillips presented the reports to the minister of water and sanitation
He indicated that according to the South African Bureau of Standards — SANS 241 which is informed by World Health Organisation Guidelines — it is not safe to drink water if less than 97% of tests for microbiological contaminants and chemical compliance conducted over a year comply with water quality standards.
"It was therefore not microbiologically safe to drink water in almost half (46%) of our drinking water systems at times during 2022 when the Blue Drop audit was done, which resulted in an increased risk of life-threatening water-borne diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhoea," he said during the presentation.
The Blue Drop report does not provide an indication of the current status of water quality in municipalities. It is a comprehensive assessment of the state of all 958 water supply systems (WSS) in each of the 144 WSAs in the country.
The department said for each WSS, assessments are carried out of the condition of infrastructure, whether the required maintenance is being done on the infrastructure, whether the infrastructure is operated correctly, whether the proper treatment processes are followed, whether proper monitoring and controls are in place and whether the staff have the necessary skills and qualifications.
Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), said it is a true — and worrying — reflection of the state of water.
"The minister said there is no need to panic or exaggerate. We can't exaggerate. The results are so bad there is no exaggerating. He keeps saying there is no crisis, but some of us have been saying it is a crisis for the past few months," she said.
Bottom line is if people are not held accountable this will continue. The leadership, mayors and municipal managers are in charge of these plants. If they not doing their jobs they must be firedDr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN
Almost half the drinking water quality in the country is a concern, Adam said, while at the same time the country is losing about 46% of its water in non-revenue water across the country.
The No Drop Report assesses the degree to which drinking water distribution systems of municipalities supply water efficiently without wasting water.
The 2023 No Drop Report found national non-revenue water (NRW) increased from 37% in 2014 to 47% in 2023. This was mainly caused by physical losses such as:
- water leaking out of pipes above or underground;
- poorly functioning or non-existent water meters;
- illegal connections; and
- poor billing and revenue collection.
The Green Drop Progress Assessment Report focuses on wastewater treatment works (WWTWs). It found that 64% of WWTWs are at high or critical risk of discharging partially treated or untreated water into rivers and the environment.
The department said the number of WWTWs in the high and critical risk categories have both increased since 2013 which has negative environmental implications and poses risks to human health, such as cholera outbreaks normally associated with wastewater pollution of water resources.
"Wastewater treatment works is worse, so how is it that we are not in a crisis?" asked Adam.
She said the reinstatement of the reports was a step in the right direction but it will be better when actions are taken following the recommendations in the reports.
"We do commend the department and the minister for reigniting these reports because it is a concern. I think that's a good thing we getting the reports but we need to act fast because what we see in the reports is that our water is in trouble, our wastewater treatments are in trouble and non-revenue water is too high," she said.
Adam said there were key issues around water that were critical and needed to be tackled quickly and urgently.
There were good recommendations but the department needs to hold municipalities accountable, she said. "Bottom line is if people are not held accountable this will continue. The leadership, mayors and municipal managers are in charge of these plants. If they not doing their jobs they must be fired."
Adam said it seemed like they worked on a proportional kind of assessment which could paint a skewed analysis of the situation. "For example, in KwaZulu-Natal, it might seem like a district municipality is doing well based on only one of the plants that might be doing well whereas others are failing. It doesn't reflect that failure."
Johannesburg received a Blue Drop accreditation but when giving an award there is a need to look at everything, she said.
"The City of Joburg, maybe in terms of drinking water the quality, is fine — but in terms of getting water to people with failing infrastructure and water-shedding and all of that, should such a municipality receive an award?"
Water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu said action plans have been developed to address key findings in the worst performing municipalities. He said. “These action plans include the provision of grants worth more than R20bn per annum to municipalities, technical and engineering support and assistance, capacity building and training, and financial management advice and support.”
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.