SA’s water supply: how safe and accessible is it?

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Following the tragic death of three infants from contaminated water in Bloemhof, we question the safety of South Africa’s water supply.

In President Zuma’s state of the nation address earlier this year, he said that 95% of South Africans “have access to water”.

Having “access” however, does not mean that everyone has piped water, and it does not mean that the water is safe to drink.

In fact, most people have no idea about the quality of the water they drink, according to the charity WaterAid, because water supplies are “rarely subject to testing”.

What impacts access to clean, safe water?

WaterAid said the best way it has found to measure levels of access to water and sanitation, and its quality, is “by actually asking people where they get their water from, and what type of toilet they use”.

The charity said improved sanitation, such as flush toilets and septic tanks, ensures safer water because of the hygienic separation of human waste from human contact.

Hand-washing and the use of proper toilets prevents the transfer of bacteria, viruses and parasites found in human waste, which could contaminate water supplies.

It is this type of contamination which is a major cause of diarrhoea – the cause of the deaths in Bloemhof and the second biggest killer of children in developing countries.

Contamination can also lead to more serious diseases such as cholera, though this has not been found in Bloemhof, the department of water and sanitation has said.

Who is to blame?

Dr Anthony Turton, water expert and professor at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, said the tragedy at Bloemhof is “not a one off – for the simple fact that this has been coming for a long, long time”.

Dr Turton pointed out that the constitutional changes of 1994 took the delivery of water supplies out of the national government’s hands, placing it under the direction of local municipalities.

Local governments were expected to help each other, yet “the opposite has been true”, said Dr Turton.

In the last 20 years, infrastructure in urban areas has been swamped by new inhabitants, while maintenance has been left to fall behind in rural areas.

Complaints in the run up to the 2011 local government elections prompted the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to launch a nationwide investigation, pulling in baseline assessments for all municipalities from the department of performance monitoring and evaluation (DPME).

Publishing its report Water and Sanitation: Accountability to People Who are Poor earlier this year, the SAHRC said it found that nationally, South Africa seems to “indicate progress”.

However, the regional story was quite different. Based on its assessment of the provision of water services for example, 23 municipalities (9% of the total) were in a crisis state, the report found, with an “acute risk of disease outbreak”.

A further 38% were at high risk, with the “potential to deteriorate into a state of crisis”.

Water supply ‘mirrors apartheid geography’

Latest government statistics show that Zuma was wrong to claim 95% of South Africans have access to water – in fact 90.8% of households had “access to piped water” in 2012 according to the General Household Survey.

But that access ranged from 98.9% in the Western Cape to 79% in the Eastern Cape. Plus, a breakdown of the statistics shows that access isn’t equal for all.

For example, less than half of households gained access through their own dwelling, just 27% have access to piped water “on site”, while 16% use communal taps and 3% use neighbours taps.

Stats SA, who compiled the survey, said: “It is a cause for concern that 2.3% of households still had to resort to sourcing drinking water from rivers, streams and dams.”

The SAHRC’s report meanwhile found that regional shortcomings tended to “mirror apartheid spatial geography”.

The report found that 1.4m households had yet to be provided with sanitation services – including 12.5% of all households in the Eastern Cape. While in KZN, 14% of households have never had access to water.
The areas noted as having “high levels of infrastructure maintenance needs” it said were located within Limpopo, KZN, Free State, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and the Eastern Cape.

“Who is valued and who is not is reflected in decisions by both the DA and ANC-led municipalities to build unenclosed toilets in open public spaces,” the SAHRC said.

Where is the quality control?

There is no official measure of water quality – the same water supply can feed a number of municipalities and could be treated differently by each one.

Household satisfaction however “has been eroding steadily since 2005” according to Stats SA.
Back then, 76% of households rated the quality of their water services as “good”. That figure dropped to 62% of households in the 2011 Census.

The Census found that people living in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga have “consistently been least satisfied” with the quality of their water.

Almost a third of households in KZN felt their water smelled bad, compared to just 3% of Northern Cape households.

Meanwhile, the Census found that 16% of Eastern Cape households felt their water was unsafe to drink, being unclear and bad-tasting.

The government’s benchmark for international standards, the Blue Drop Certification Programme, is supposed to keep check on the municipal management of water quality in South Africa.

A water system has to score 95% or higher on a combination of points, including water quality compliance and operational services, such as asset management, to get the Blue Drop stamp of approval.

But while some municipalities will not make the grade, many others do not bother to report, Dr Turton explained.

The government therefore insists that a town “without Blue Drop certification does not automatically mean that its water is unsafe for human consumption”.

Out of the 931 water systems within the 153 municipalities audited in 2012, just 98 systems obtained Blue Drop Certification for the 2012 reporting cycle.

According to the SAHRC’s report, a key issue with access to water is the poor quality of infrastructure delivered by local governments.

The Blue Drop Report may help steer you on how well your local government is doing, though Dr Turton argued: “The bottom line is that you only have to look at the roads, the railways to see that across the board, infrastructure is failing.”

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