Municipalities risk lives with sub-standard water

Poor water quality becomes the norm as 77% of South Africa’s 1 186 water supply systems fail to meet the legal standards

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11/04/2022 12:24:34

Municipalities risk lives with sub-standard water 

The Blue Drop report is a red flag for the dire state of most of our water systems and the effect on human rights.

The report is the official confirmation of the widespread problem that too many people face every day, often for years, and there is no longer any excuse for the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) failing to act against officials responsible for sub-standard water systems.

“While we welcome the publication of the Blue Drop Progress Report, the state of our drinking water quality is shocking. Municipalities are playing with people’s lives. Civil society must get organised in a national network to keep monitoring and testing our drinking water,” says Dr Ferrial Adam, Water and Environment Manager for the Community Action Network (WaterCAN).

“Not only is the quality a concern but also the serious lack of required technical skills needed to ensure effective operations and maintenance of water treatment plants and distribution networks.”

The Blue Drop Progress Report was released by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) on 1 April 2022, the first report since 2014. It is an assessment of the cumulative risk status of treatment systems of drinking water within the municipal (or other) water services. The assessment was conducted on 144 water services authorities in South Africa comprising of 1186 water supply systems. 

The Blue Drop assessment shows that 52% of water supply systems range from medium to critical risk. In addition, 60% of supply systems do not comply with microbiological standards and 77% of supply systems do not comply with chemical standards, as outlined in SANS 241:2015. 

“The DWS’s remedial actions such as ‘Boil Water’ notices and issuing of ‘Water Quality’ Advisories must not normalise poor quality water. These should be the exception but are fast becoming the norm as the water quality deteriorates across the country,” Adam adds.

The report shows that, technical skills are poor throughout the country with 61% of supply systems having poor technical skills and 72% have insufficient maintenance teams. Gauteng and Western Cape have the largest proportion of low-risk supply systems, while the North West the highest risk with more than 50% of supply systems regarded as critical.

These failed systems are also a direct result of the embedded and widespread corruption in the national Department of Water and Sanitation.

The DWS approach of issuing a red note to high- and critical-risk water services institutions – usually municipalities –  is welcomed. The red note requires the water services institution to “submit a detailed corrective action plan within 60 days of publishing of this report. The plan must map the activities, responsible persons, timelines, and expected improvements as outlined in the Regulatory Comment”.

“The state of our drinking water should be raising red flags everywhere. It is time for DWS to fulfil its oversight function and assert its mandate under Section 151 of the National Water Act. This demands that DWS holds municipalities liable and municipal managers should be criminally charged, fined or imprisoned for their neglect,” concludes Adam.

WaterCAN is also calling on people to demand their water quality information from municipalities. The public should have  access to the corrective plans where appropriate. This information should be easily available to consumers to ensure transparency and accountability. It is a basic right to have access to transparent and accurate information regarding the quality of drinking water communities receive from their local water service institution.

More information

WaterCAN, an initiative of OUTA, is a growing network of citizen science activists who are committed water guardians and willing stewards advocating for clean, safe and sustainable water in South Africa.

A soundclip with comment by OUTA WaterCAN's Dr Ferrial Adam is here.

The Department of Water and Sanitation’s Blue Drop Progress Report 2022 is here.

OUTA's comment on the department's recently released Green Drop Report 2022 is here.

More on OUTA's WaterCAN initiative is here.

Picture: Pixabay