Half of South Africa’s drinking water is poor quality

 ·6 Jun 2023

The Department of Water and Sanitation says that the quality of South Africa’s drinking water is worrying.

The department’s Blue Drop Watch Report looks at the current condition of the drinking water infrastructure and treatment processes from a technical standpoint.

The preliminary Watch Report has been published ahead of the full Blue Drop Report 2023 and only provides a test sample of South Africa’s water quality.

The Watch Report mainly deals with three areas:

  • Technical Site Assessments (TSA) scores: Physical appearance of terrains and buildings, raw water abstraction and delivery networks, treatment plants, chemical handling, water processing units, bulk delivery systems, and distribution pump stations and pipe network.
  •  VROOM: The Very Rough Order of Measurement provides an estimate funding required to restore existing treatment infrastructure to its original design capacity and operations, by addressing civil, mechanical, electrical and instrumentation defects.
  • DWQ: Drinking water quality compliance is measured in terms of the microbiological and chemical quality of drinking water.

151 Water Supply Systems (WSS) were inspected by the department, with an average TSA of 69%, which indicates that infrastructure and processes are, on average, “partially functional with an average performance”.

Out of all the systems, 85% (121) were found to be in average, good, and excellent condition, whilst 15% (23) were found to be in poor and critical condition.

Despite currently being the epicentre of a Cholera outbreak, Gauteng was home to the best water supply systems in the country, followed by Western Cape and Eastern Cape. The WSS in critical and poor states were located in the Free State, Limpopo, Northern Cape, and North West.

The department said that the VROOM costs needed to restore and refurbish dysfunctional systems would total R1.5 billion, with the Free State and KwaZulu Natal requiring most of the investment.

However, the biggest issue regards drinking water quality, with only 38% and 11% of systems achieving excellent and good microbiological quality, respectively.

That means that 51% of the drinking water measured had poor to bad microbiological water quality status.

In addition, chemical compliance analyses show that 16% and 14% have excellent and good water quality, respectively, whilst 71% of plants failed to achieve chemical compliance – plants that failed to submit information in time were translated to zero compliance.

“If drinking water contains unsafe levels of contaminants, it can cause health effects, such as gastrointestinal illnesses, nervous system or reproductive effects, and chronic diseases such as cancer,” the US Environmental Protection Agency said.

The plan ahead 

The department said that it is concerned by the overall poor water quality that is being distributed to customers, despite some technical assessments showing positive results.

It added that it will continue to monitor performance with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the South African Local Government Association, Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (MISA), and water institutions that fail to meet safe drinking water standards.

Moreover, South Africa is in the process of creating an office to facilitate private investment into the water industry –  emulating the electricity procurement agency that attracted billions for renewable energy projects.

The Water Partnership Office (WPO) is currently being set up by the Development Bank of Southern Africa, with its initial funding coming from the Green Climate Fund.

“What the Independent Power Producers Office did for renewable energy,” the WPO wants to do for water, Catherine Koffman from the Development Bank said.

In 2019, a national water plan said that South Africa needs to spend R900 billion on its water supply and storage infrastructure by 2030.

The report be accessed here (mobile data warning: 56MB PDF): 2023 Blue Drop Watch Report 

Read: Farmers sound the alarm on ‘race quotas’ for water in South Africa 

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