Concern over quality of tap water in some small towns

The tap water in some small South African towns may not be fit to drink, a senior Department of Water Affairs official said on Monday.

Speaking at the Implementing Environmental Water Allocations (IEWA) conference in Port Elizabeth, the deputy director general of national water resources and infrastructure, Cornelius Ruiters, said there was only an 80% chance that small-town tap water was safe.

“Some of the places where we have challenges are in the Free State, in Limpopo, and to some extent in the Eastern Cape—and here and there in the North West and Mpumalanga,” he said.

“I would say that at the moment there’s about an 80% chance that most of the water in the small towns is still drinkable.

“Obviously it would be advisable to know which smaller towns, and then to find out what is in the smaller towns, and obviously SA Tourism and such people have to provide this sort of information.”

Ruiters said his department was looking at posting the names of towns where water quality was sub-standard on its website, but could not say when this might be done.

The department monitored water quality in 97% of South Africa’s municipalities, he said.

Questioned on the issue, Water Research Commission director for water-linked ecosystems Steve Mitchell said people had nothing to fear in the country’s major metropolitan areas.

“South African standards for tap water are among the best in the world. The big city councils are delivering water at that quality because they have the technology and the capacity to manage that technology,” he said.

“But as you get away from [the major cities], then the quality of drinking tap water that has not been boiled becomes a bit more risky because—particularly [in the region] around the border with Zimbabwe, where we’ve got the cholera coming in—there is a danger of picking up disease.

“Then [also] below sewage works—urban waste water treatment works—which are not being operated effectively, there is also a risk there that there might be diseases in the water. So that water should be boiled before being drunk,” Mitchell said.

Asked if he would drink the tap water in a small town, Mitchell replied: “I would like to know what’s been happening in the river first.”

Meanwhile, South Africa could be getting up to a tenth of its drinking water from the sea within the next two decades, the Department of Water Affairs said on Monday.

“We’re looking around about 2030 to have about 8% to 10% of South Africa’s water to come from desalination,” said Ruiters.

“At the moment, Nelson Mandela Bay [Port Elizabeth] is one of the coastal cities we’re looking at; the other is Cape Town.”

Asked what the cost would be, he said it would likely run into billions.

“It’s going to be huge investment.
We still have to work out the economics—it’s going to be billions,” he said.

The department currently supplies about 4,6-billion cubic metres of drinking water a year

‘Serious problems’
African economies are especially vulnerable to water shortages, delegates to the IEWA conference heard.

“Many African economies are held hostage to hydrology,” World Bank senior water resources specialist Rafik Hirji said at the start of the four-day event.

Hirji said Africa’s vulnerability stemmed from the extreme variability of its climate, a condition exacerbated by increasing climate change.

He cited Ethiopia, Kenya and Mozambique as examples of countries on the continent where there was a strong correlation between rainfall and GDP.

“Climate events in these countries have huge economic impacts.”

Speaking later to the South African Press Association, he said some countries in the Southern African Development Community region were “quite vulnerable” in this regard, one of which was Zimbabwe.

“A number of countries are really facing serious problems as a result of their inability to deal with existing climate variabilities. And now climate change is only going to make it worse,” he said.—Sapa

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