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Water sector to clean up its act

The resuscitation of the Blue and Green Drop certification programmes to improve water quality in South Africa has been welcomed by water specialists.

The water and sanitation department last published the Green Drop report in 2013, and the Blue Drop report in 2014. 

The reinstatement of the water reporting system and the move to get an independent water regulator is crucial, said Anthony Turton, a professor at the centre for environmental management at the University of the Free State.

“Both of these are needed to enable the almost R1-trillion needed to recapitalise the water sector, which has been looted out of effective existence,” he said. 

“That looting will now stop, and as soon as good governance has been reinstated, the South African Water Business Chamber will continue to work towards developing appropriate special purpose vehicles, currently being refined in close cooperation with both the treasury and presidency, to enable the water sector to be recapitalised.” 

This recapitalisation, he said, will use modern technology and transform the sector into one where water is an “economic enabler” and “part of an invigorated national economy” where jobs are created and stability is restored.

The department said the Blue and Green Drop programmes, which call for excellent drinking water and wastewater quality management through incentive-based regulation, are being reinstated after the presidency committed to fast-track the delivery of economic reforms through Operation Vulindlela.

A full Green Drop audit and a partial Blue Drop assessment will be undertaken this year, while a full Blue Drop audit and a partial Green Drop assessment will be done next year.

Siboniso Mkhaliphi, the department’s acting chief director of compliance, monitoring and enforcement, denied the programmes had been suspended, saying “there were challenges in allocating funds to employ services of external service providers. Work continued to be done in-house but the results were not published. We are referring to it as a resuscitation or relaunch to highlight our intention to conduct the audits — but importantly to publish the results.”

This, he said, will assist the public to know the quality status of the water that is provided and which is discharded into their environment by their water services institutions.

The 2014 Blue Drop report assessed 1 009 water purification plants but only 32% produced excellent drinking water. The 2014 Green Drop report, which assessed 824 wastewater treatment plants, found that 84% of plants were at critical risk, high risk or medium risk and only 16% of these plants were at low risk.

Mkhaliphi added: “In terms of the last Green Drop done in 2013, it was observed that the main challenge is the lack of maintenance of wastewater infrastructure due to operation and maintenance budget constraints or technical capacity to undertake maintenance work.

“The number of wastewater treatment works operating above design capacity is increasing. This points to lack of capacity upgrades to cater for population growth and industrial developments,” Mkhaliphi said.

This was echoed at a recent webinar, hosted by the Water Research Commission to launch the programmes. Rodney Mathebula, who works in the water services regulation section at the department, said: “The larger the population serviced by the water supply system, the greater the risk in terms of the health impact should any hazardous event occur. 

“Should the water treatment operational capacity exceed the design capacity, the impact on public health risk might increase should there be any process-control incident.” 

Mkhaliphi said the programmes form part of the department’s regulatory function. “Noncompliance . . . will, in the first instance, point us to what needs to be fixed. Water services institutions will be given a chance to fix what is wrong through administrative enforcement processes, which may culminate in legal actions if not complied with.”

Mariette Liefferink, the chief executive of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, said the problem is that noncompliances with directives never result in prosecutions. “And how will bankrupt and noncompliant municipalities be in the position to comply with the requirements of the programmes?”

 To this, Mkhaliphi said: “The programmes themselves do not require municipalities to contribute financially to participate. The programmes will assist municipalities to identify their risks and to manage such risks. 

“If the risk is financial, then the water services institutions will be guided to use the reports in supporting their case for funding either through existing government infrastructure funding programmes or in the financial markets.”

 Leon Basson, the Democratic Alliance’s representative for water and sanitation, said the water crisis in municipalities “reflects government failure at its most basic level”. 

“We hope that the department will provide local governments with the needed support to effectively implement the programmes.”

Ash Seetal, a specialist in strategic water management at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said: “The Blue Drop and Green Drop system allows us to celebrate the great performers and focus our limited sector skills and resources to the areas where interventions are required, without letting situations degenerate to a point where these become untenable.”

Seetal said that it is encouraging to see the speedy response and mobilisation by the department to the announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa during Sona and the Presidency’s commitment through Operation Vulindlela. 

“This spirit and energy must be sustained and will be the acid test of the programme’s effectiveness beyond this initial excitement.”

The reinstatement of the programme, he said, will contribute directly and substantively to enhancing water securing in South Africa, “particularly in relation to the security of sufficient water supplies of the required quality standards. 

“This is essential for our country’s social stability, enhancing our prospects for stimulating and supporting economic development, particularly at local levels, by minimising the investment risks to industries and other business enterprises that need a secure supply of sufficient good quality water for their business stability, particularly in the face of climate change, droughts, rapid urbanisation and its attendant demands for additional water and wastewater services.”

Seetal said support structures are of paramount importance, which will have the requisite competence and capacity to act decisively. This includes actions put in place by the department through its agencies, departments and in engaging citizens and the private sector to enhance the effectiveness of the programme, “otherwise the programme will merely be a monitoring and oversight function with little further value”.

The effectiveness of the programme, he said, will be shown by how strategically and tactically the department and the government targets its responses to where interventions are required.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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