Grave concern at water problems in South Africa

19th January 2024


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The Blue Drop and No Drop reports, as well as the Green Drop progress report and awards ceremony, held on December 5, 2023, were a way to award those who have “heeded the call and subscribed to ensuring that citizens are protected”, Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu said at the launch of the reports.

However, civil rights organisation AfriForum noted that the results instead highlighted the extent of the problems with the municipalities’ management of drinking and wastewater, implying that there was little to celebrate.

The Blue Drop and Green Drop certification programmes, first introduced in 2008 and stopping in 2014, had been reintroduced in 2021. Mchunu stated: “When we joined the ministry back in 2021, we committed the department to reintroducing these flagship programmes for the sector.”

He explained that since then the programmes were “resuscitated”, an achievement he expressed pride in, as he noted that the department had once again audited all Water Services Authorities in terms of their drinking water systems, water conservation and demand management, as well as wastewater treatment works.

Following the release of the results, AfriForum, which has reportedly harboured concerns on the matter for several years, indicated that its trepidation had been vindicated.

Afriforum had been compiling a blue and green drop report every year since 2013 following the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS’s) discontinuing the official report. AfriForum stated that it had repeatedly asked the DWS to resume the compilation of the official reports during the period between 2013 and 2021, and noted that the most recent DWS report was the third of its kind over the last two years.

AfriFroum averred that the report was launched as a result of the increased pressure on the government following an increase in cholera cases in South Africa and a general decline in municipal service delivery.

The Blue Drop report’s results show that 227 of the country’s 985 water supply systems (WSSs) are in a critical condition, with 184 WSSs being in the medium-risk category and 122 being in the high-risk category.

A common problem among WSSs is failure to pay contractors, laboratories and service providers, which results in services not being provided, being delayed or stopped entirely.

AfriForum described the substandard quality of the drinking water to the public as “worrying”, noting that on a national level, the drinking water quality of 46% of WSSs does not comply with existing microbiological standards, with 44% not complying with the chemical standards for safe human consumption.

The DWS Blue Drop report found that 57% of municipalities do not notify water users if the quality of drinking water is compromised or it is not monitored, leading to waning consumer confidence on the potability of the water in their taps.

It showed that many WSSs are at the edge of their capabilities, with many municipalities not having water abstraction authorisation in place, not measuring their abstraction volume or over-abstracting their permitted quota, which adversely impacts on the country’s water planning and preservation efforts.

“This paints an extremely worrying picture, especially because it is clear that municipalities are incompetent and do not have the ability to provide basic services such as clean drinking water,” AfriForum environmental affairs manager Lambert de Klerk stated.

The Green Drop report showed that 8% of wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) are in a low-risk category, 24% in the medium-risk category, with 67.6% being in the high- and critical-risk category.

When compared with the 2022 reports, there has been a deterioration in the status of wastewater in South Africa.

According to AfriForum environmental affairs adviser Marais de Vaal, the mismanagement of wastewater, results in a “viscious cycle” that can affect water potability.

He explained that with almost two-thirds of WWTWs posing a high or critical risk, it is not “far-fetched” that the treatment of drinking water will also become more problematic in the future.

He continued, noting that this will greatly impact the cost of drinking water, as it will become more expensive to purify water and, given the critical condition of almost a third of the country’s WSSs, this to can lead to life-threatening scenarios.

Afriforum also noted that the No Drop report showed that 144 water service authorities had been audited, with only four receiving 90% or higher, eight receiving between 80% to 90%, 43 falling between 50% to 80%, 65 below 50% and the remaining 24 receiving 0% as information was not provided.

The overall national water loss – as a result of leaks in the distribution network – stands at 40.8%.

“If one looks at the content of these reports, one stands in disbelief at the Cooperative Government and Traditional Affairs Minister Thembi Nkadimeng’s recent statement that there is a remarkable improvement in municipalities,” noted De Vaal.

He explained that the provision of clean drinking water, a basic human right, weakens yearly, with the number of towns with water problems increasing. He noted that these statements are no more than an “election gimmick”.

De Vaal concluded by noting that, in 2024, AfriForum would be launching a National Water Strategy that would outline practical plans to make communities more independent from incompetent municipalities’ “defective water and sanitation service delivery”.

Edited by Nadine James
Features Deputy Editor


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