Everyone in South Africa lives downstream from a sewage discharge point into their drinking water supply, which is why the Blue and Green Drop reports are so important, says water specialist Anthony Turton.
The country has a closed-loop system, whereby all drinking water comes from a river or dam, but all sewage and industrial wastewater is returned to the same river but in a different place, explains the professor at the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State.
“In effect then, South Africa recycles wastewater for drinking purposes.”
That it was halted is an indication that the department of water and sanitation failed in its custodial role of South Africa’s water by “arbitrarily choosing to withhold water quality information from the public”, Turton says.
The programmes measured the most important indicators for sustainable, safe water and wastewater service delivery. The first annual reports were released in 2009.
The reporting system was a vital part of the compliance monitoring by the department. “The reason for that suspension was the simple fact that the department, as the regulator, was unable to ensure compliance standards were being met, so rather than report this non-compliance to the public, they decided to suspend the reporting programme,” he says.
This was both a betrayal of the public trust and a clear indicator that the department’s role as a trustworthy regulator needs to be questioned.
The department’s 2019 Water and Sanitation Master Plan showed that 56% of 1 150 municipal wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water treatment works are in a poor or critical condition, with 11% being dysfunctional.
Water was nationalised by the National Water Act, making the minister obliged to do at least three things, says Turton.
“First, to inform the public about the quality of water in the rivers (Green Drop). Second, to report on the water quality in the taps (Blue Drop), which means oversight of municipalities.
“Finally, to act as a regulator for all players in the overall supply chain of water from the river to the bulk treatment plant, into the municipal networks, back into the municipal wastewater treatment plants to be finally discharged as effluent into the source of all drinking water — the river.”
Governance will fail, Turton says, if the regulator is both player and referee.
“This is what the suspension of the Blue and Green Drop reports shows us. The department is a player in that they are responsible for the delivery of bulk water. Still, they are also the shareholder in bulk water providers like Rand Water and Umgeni Water, while at the same time being the referee over the performance of municipalities that control the majority of the wastewater treatment plants.”
This is clearly a conflict of interest situation, Turton says, which is why Outa and the South African Business Water Chamber have been calling for the establishment of an independent water regulator “free of conflicting interests”.
Neil Macleod, a technical committee member of the Water Institute of Southern Africa, says the assessments were designed to provide an audited evaluation of those services’ quality and were held in high regard by the sector.
“Not only did they accurately indicate the state of affairs of these services, but they also gave useful indications of where the problems were and what needed to be done to address them.”
Macleod says the most likely explanation why results haven’t been released since 2014 is the “results were shocking and showed a decline in both services that was too great to be publicised” while the failure to continue with the programme has been blamed on a lack of funding.
But the cost to the economy of poor quality water and sanitation services far outweighs the cost of the Blue and Green Drop programme.
“The impact of the pollution of the Vaal River is but one example. The more polluted the water sources are, the more expensive and more difficult it is to treat that water,” he says.
The revival of these initiatives will allow the sector and the public to be informed about these services’ current quality and “facilitate the targeting of much-needed corrective action”.
The programme’s data from 2014 revealed how 29% of the country’s water systems were in a good state, and less than 13% of the sewage systems were considered to be in a low-risk situation.
“These results are reflected in the extent of the pollution of our rivers and the number of water and sanitation service delivery protests we are witnessing. It’s certain that the situation in 2021 is worse than the 2014 figures indicate and that urgent action is required,” says Macleod.
Ash Seetal, a specialist in strategic water management at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says the programme’s revival is “very progressive” and long overdue.
This incentive and risk-based regulation is much more proactive in its approach, he says, complementing punitive systems that remain necessary when there is consistent disregard for water quality compliance, to the detriment of citizens and the natural environment.
The Blue Drop and Green Drop system “allows us to celebrate the great performers” and focus limited sector skills and resources to areas where interventions are required”.
This is without letting situations “degenerate to a point where these become untenable and require greater resources — money, materials and skills — to repair and re-instate”, says Seetal.
DWS had not responded to calls for comment by the time of publication.