South Africa water quality collapses – beware the taps in these provinces

 ·5 Dec 2023

The Department of Water and Sanitation has published the full Blue Drop, Green Drop and No Drop Water reports for 2023, revealing a dire state of affairs when it comes to safe and clean drinking water in the country.

The headline figure in the Blue Drop report – which contains a comprehensive assessment of all 958 water supply systems (WSS) in each of the 144 water service authorities (WSA) in the country – is that almost half the water supplies in South Africa fall below the 50% compliance score, and almost a third of these systems are in critical condition.

In terms of water quality, 46% of water supply systems exhibit poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance – a massive deterioration from 5% in 2014.

For each WSS, assessments were carried out of the condition of the 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.

Only 26 water supply systems scored more than 95% and qualified for the prestigious Blue Drop Certification.

This was down significantly from 2014, where 44 systems were awarded Blue Drop status.

“This indicates an overall decline in excellence between 2014 and 2023,” the department said.

Alarmingly, of the 958 water systems, 277 (29%) located in 62 WSAs were identified to be in a critical state of performance. In 2014, 174 systems in 33 WSAs were found to be in a critical state of performance.

This indicates again that there has been a sharp decline in performance between 2014 and 2023.

In summary, trend analysis since 2014 to 2023 indicate as follows:

  • Systems in a ‘critical state’ increased from 174 systems to 277 systems
  • Systems in a ‘poor state’ decreased from 245 systems to 174 systems
  • Systems in an ‘average state’ decreased from 444 systems to 373 systems
  • Systems in the ‘good state’ decreased from 129 systems to 108 systems
  • Systems in the ‘excellent state’ decreased from 44 systems to 26 systems.

The department noted that drinking water systems in the major metropolitan areas are generally performing well in terms of performance.

Gauteng has the highest percentage of drinking water systems with excellent or good performance (62%), followed by Western Cape (50%).

“The water supply disruptions which have been experienced in Gauteng in recent months are caused by the demand for treated water occasionally exceeding the available supply of treated water,” the department said.

The Northern Cape has the highest percentage of drinking water systems with poor or critical performance (87%). This has deteriorated from 48% in 2014.

The percentage of drinking water systems with poor or critical performance in Free State has also deteriorated markedly between 2014 (31%) and 2023 (59%).

Water quality

The deterioration in the performance of water systems has also led to a massive decline in water quality in South Africa.

“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. Drinking water quality is generally good in the major metropolitan areas,” the department said.

Looking at drinking water quality compliance, it is clear that the highest levels of non-compliance are in Mpumalanga, the Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape – levels of non-compliance have hit between 59% and 64%.

As with the water system performance, Gauteng (21%) and the Western Cape (21%) have the highest levels of compliance, with Limpopo (also 21%) featuring.

When the tests carried out by a municipality indicate that drinking water poses a health risk, the municipality is obliged by law to inform its consumers that the quality of the water that it is supplying poses a health risk.

The department said it 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.

These letters require the municipalities to inform their residents should they still have poor or bad compliance.

Read: Water chaos in South Africa

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