SA’s water quality now a crisis, warn experts

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, released the Water Services Drop Programmes 2023 Reports. Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspapers

Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, released the Water Services Drop Programmes 2023 Reports. Picture: Itumeleng English / Independent Newspapers

Published Dec 6, 2023


There has been a severe regression in drinking water quality in South Africa over the past nine years, with tests indicating water in almost half of all municipalities in the country was unsafe to consume in 2022.

Experts have now described the situation as being beyond water challenges but a “water crisis”.

This was a concern expressed after Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu, joined by his officials, released the Water Services Drop Programmes 2023 Reports, Blue, Green and No Drop watch reports on Tuesday.

They aim to improve municipal drinking water quality, wastewater management, water conservation and demand management.

The water reports covered the July 1, 2021, to June 30, 2022, audit outcomes.

The audit was conducted on 958 water supply systems (WSS) across 144 water services authorities (WSA) that are responsible for water provision in the country.

Presenting, the department’s deputy general Dr Sean Phillips said 26 water supply systems scored more than 95% and qualified for the prestigious Blue Drop Certification. In 2014, 44 water supply systems were awarded the Blue Drop status.

“Of the 958 water supply systems 277 located in 62 water service authorities were identified to be in a critical state of performance. In 2014, 174 water supply systems in 33 water services authorities were found to be in a critical state of performance. This indicates that there has been an overall increase in the number of systems in a critical state of performance between 2014 and 2023,” said Phillips.

Drinking water systems in the major metropolitan areas, with Gauteng followed by the Western Cape, were generally performing well with excellent or good performances in drinking water systems.

Phillips explained that recent water supply disruptions in Gauteng were caused by the demand for treated water occasionally exceeding the available supply of treated water.

However, Northern Cape and Free State’s drinking water systems were poor or critical and performances had deteriorated.

“Based on water quality tests carried out by municipalities themselves during the 2021/2022 municipal financial year, 54% of water supply systems achieved excellent or good microbiological water quality compliance, and 46% achieved poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance.

“In 2014, 5% of water supply systems achieved poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance. This indicates a severe regression in drinking water quality between 2014 and 2023.

“According to the South African Bureau of Standards (SANS 241) 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 the water in 46% of the country’s drinking water systems at times during 2022, which resulted in increased risk of life-threatening waterborne diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhoea.

“DWS has sent non-compliance letters to the municipalities with systems which scored poorly or badly in terms of drinking water quality in the 2023 Blue Drop Report,” said Phillips.

The Green Drop report found that 66% of wastewater treatment works were at high or critical risk of discharging partially treated or untreated water into rivers and the environment, an increase since 2013.

Rethink The Stink’s director, Caroline Marx, said the failure of 46% of municipalities to supply safe drinking water is not only a public health crisis but also a financial crisis because of increased spending on avoidable diseases.

“It hits the less privileged sectors of society hardest as they can ill afford the extra costs in boiling or buying safe drinking water and demonstrates a breakdown in accountability at both local and national level.

“Water purification plants are designed to purify clean water; however, in many areas the water in rivers and dams is so polluted by sewage that the water purification plants cannot cope. The failure of wastewater treatment works nationwide to treat sewage to safe standards has resulted in highly polluted dams and rivers and directly impacts drinking water downstream.”

Stellenbosch University Water Institute researcher Henk Stander said proper planning and strategies were required and then successful implementation.

“The government is failing with proper implementation of projects in general. We require effective and immediate actions by government officials. The pace is definitely too slow, very poor performance by the department and municipalities in general. There is a lack of expertise and the required skills are in a shortage.”

UWC chemistry professor Leslie Petrik said the “water crisis” was caused by numerous factors, among which lack of accountability ranks high.

“However, we need to consider the impact of many other factors such as the parlous state of the country’s finances due to corruption and wrong macroeconomic decisions, the constant and crippling theft and damage done to water and sanitation infrastructure, the huge growth in our population.”

Petrik also noted the poor maintenance of water and sanitation infrastructure countrywide, low budget allocation by the government to maintain and improve the water infrastructure countrywide, and the lack of prioritising water quality.

“It has become a wicked problem with many interlinked causations,” said Petrik.

Cape Times