/ 6 December 2023

Severe decline in drinking water quality since 2014

Nearly half of South Africa’s drinking water systems are in a poor state. (Getty Images)

It was not microbiologically safe to drink the water in almost half of South Africa’s drinking water systems at times during 2022, posing an increased risk of life-threatening waterborne diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhoea.

This alarming state of microbiological compliance in some of the country’s municipalities was revealed in a presentation by Sean Phillips, the director general of the department of water and sanitation (DWS) on Tuesday when Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu released its Drop reports.

These were the 2023 full Blue Drop Report, which provides an assessment of drinking water quality, and the full No Drop Report, which focuses on water losses and non-revenue water in all the municipalities in the country. The Green Drop progress assessment report was released to provide an update on the performance of wastewater management systems at the municipal level.

According to the department, the Blue and No Drop reports show that there has been a decline in drinking water quality and an increase in non-revenue water since the last reports were issued in 2014. The Green Drop report, too, shows a deterioration in the performance of municipal wastewater treatment systems, it said.

Urban systems faring better

Announcing the key findings of the Blue Drop report, Phillips said 26 water supply systems scored more than 95% and qualified for prestigious Blue Drop certification. This is compared to the 44 water supply systems that were awarded Blue Drop status in 2014, with Phillips noting “an overall decline in excellence” between 2014 and 2023.

The report revealed that 277 of 958, or 29%, of water supply systems were identified to be in a critical state of performance, compared with 174 in 2014. 

Drinking water systems in the major metropolitan areas are generally performing well in terms of the Blue Drop key performance areas.

Gauteng has the highest percentage of drinking water systems with excellent or good performance (62%), followed by the Western Cape (50%). 

The Northern Cape has the highest percentage of drinking water systems with poor or critical performance (87%), up from 48% in 2014. 

The percentage of drinking water systems with poor or critical performance in the Free State has also “deteriorated markedly” from 2014 (31%) to 2023 (59%).

State of water quality

According to Phillips, based on water quality tests carried out by the municipalities themselves during the 2021/2022 municipal financial year, 54% of systems achieved excellent or good water quality compliance, while 46% achieved poor or bad microbiological compliance, compared to 5% in 2014.

He said 76% of systems achieved excellent or good compliance while 24% of systems recorded unacceptable chemical water quality compliance, compared to 15% in 2014.

“The overall performance trend indicates a severe regression from 2014 to 2023, especially concerning microbiological compliance,” he said, adding that drinking water quality is generally good in the major metropolitan areas.

During the audit period, 14 water service authorities did not report water quality data to the department or provide any other evidence that they have been testing their water quality.

The department issued non-compliance notices to those municipalities instructing them to issue advisory notices to their residents that their water might not be safe to drink if it has not been properly tested.

It followed up with them and some indicated that they were in the process of appointing laboratories, while others had commenced with sampling and provided evidence of testing and achieving drinking water quality. “Where necessary these water service authorities did issue advisory notices.”

‘Not safe’

The South African Bureau of Standards — SANS 241 that are informed by World Health Organisation guidelines — deems that it is not safe to drink water if less than 97% of tests for microbiological contaminants and chemical compliance conducted over a year comply with water quality standards.

“It was therefore not microbiologically safe to drink the water in almost half (46%) of our drinking water systems at times during 2022 when the Blue Drop audit was done, which resulted in increased risk of life-threatening waterborne diseases such as cholera and chronic diarrhoea,” Phillips said.

The Blue Drop report does not provide an indication of the current status of water quality in municipalities. 

“In terms of SANS 241 and the norms and standards issued by DWS under the Water Services Act, when the tests carried out by a municipality indicate that the water supplied poses a health risk, the municipality must inform its consumers that the quality of the water that it supplies poses a health risk.”

Phillips said the DWS had sent non-compliance letters to municipalities that have systems with poor or bad compliance in the 2023 Blue Drop Report. These letters require the municipalities to inform their residents should they still have poor or bad compliance.

The public can safely consume water from their taps if their municipalities indicate that the water being provided is being tested and meets the requirements of SANS 241 and “residents should check with their municipalities if this is the case”.


Phillips said the underlying causes of poor performance in terms of the drop reports were non-adherence to standard operating processes for drinking water treatment and wastewater treatment and infrastructure in a poor condition because of a lack of maintenance.

Ferrial Adam, the executive manager of WaterCAN, an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse, said she was not surprised by the results of the reports.

“We’ve been expecting it. We’ve been seeing it in terms of our testing we’ve been doing. So, it’s not surprising — more and more we’re finding tap water that’s a concern in Port Nolloth [in the Northern Cape], in the Free State and the Eastern Cape, where it definitely aligns to what is coming out in the report. 

“What is shocking to us is the actual percentages. I did expect we would do better in terms of microbiological compliance of the Blue Drop, so when you say that 46% do not comply, that is concerning. 

“If you’ve got 46% that do not comply, why are we not getting more ‘boil water’ notices from municipalities to tell people not to drink the water?”