/ 17 October 2022

Tap water is safe to drink in most urban areas but more testing is needed: WaterCAN

Tap Water
Johannesburg Water said full recovery will take five to 14 days. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Tap water is safe to drink in most urban areas in South Africa but raw water sources, such as streams, rivers and dams, have high levels of E.Coli and coliform bacteria, posing serious health risks.

These are the findings from a week of countrywide water testing last month by more than 100 citizen science activists for the Water Community Action Network (WaterCAN), an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse.

“South Africans don’t know what they are drinking, and we don’t know what the quality of our natural water resources are,” said a report released by WaterCAN on the first round of testing. “It is for this reason that WaterCAN embarked on a citizen science process that empowers communities to monitor water quality on an affordable and sustainable basis.”

The conclusion derived from the results is that tap water is healthy in most urban areas but there is a need for more people to test it in smaller towns and rural areas, according to Dr Ferrial Adam, manager of WaterCAN. 

“The electricity crisis has affected pumping of water at reservoirs, and this could result in water being contaminated, which means that regular testing is becoming even more imperative.” 

Testing water

Individuals, residents’ associations, NGOs and community organisations conducted the testing at various points in Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, North West and Western Cape.

The parameters selected are key to the South African National Standard (SANS) 241 that provides drinking water specifications and stipulates the minimum requirements for potable water, WaterCAN said. 

The kit tests for chemicals and bacteria, among other things. These include nitrates; nitrites; phosphates; pH; hardness; alkalinity; chlorine and metals such as copper, lead, cadmium and mercury. It also has a total coliform screen and an E. Coli test.

Most of the tests were conducted in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, with the majority in urban areas and small towns. Few were in rural areas.

“It can be argued that the sample size is small but this must be viewed as at least 100 testing points that are indicators of pollution across South Africa,” the report said. 

“The percentage of positive levels of E. Coli and coliform – 76% of the plates had E. Coli and/or coliform and 72% of all raw water sources were positive for total coliform – is an indication of a much bigger problem and challenge in the country.” 

Drinking water 

The results analysed were for 37 drinking water or tap water sources, while 40 tests were done on raw water sources. “The chemical parameters for the 37 samples of tap water were generally quite good, and within the acceptable limits, thus indicating that the water was safe to drink. This is across all provinces, in the main urban areas.”

However, with regard to the bacterial parameters of tap water, four tests out of 37 had a presence of total coliform bacteria. One sample, from Winburg in the Free State, showed high levels of total coliform. 

The municipality was immediately informed about the presence of bacteria and it issued a “boil your water” notice to the residents in the area to kill the bacteria. 

The report noted how the risk of contaminated drinking water supply in some municipalities is worsened by a lack of maintenance at water-treatment facilities, a lack of laboratory facilities to regularly test water in line with regulatory requirements and a lack of proper treatment of highly contaminated raw water. 

Raw water sources

The report flagged the quality of raw water sources as a “major concern”, as this is where drinking water is obtained for communities.

At least 76% of the tests on raw water sources – dams, rivers and streams – reflected high levels of E. Coli and coliform, which “presents a serious health risk”. 

The testing points in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Western Cape and Limpopo had the highest positive levels for E. Coli and coliform, it said. 

“The main causes in each of the areas could be attributed to failing wastewater treatment plants, overflowing manholes and waste dumping into rivers and streams.”

Where people depend on the direct water source for drinking and cooking, the health risks are most severe. “Failing infrastructure, lack of sufficient budget allocation, poor oversight and a lack of law enforcement are the main causes of sewage pollution.”

‘Pillar to post’

Citizen science volunteer Gavin Borrageiro tested tap water and raw water sources in George, Wilderness and Sedgefield. He picked up E. Coli and coliform bacteria in the Kaaimans River (Swart Rivier and N2) and Touws River (Pirates Creek and Anchorage Lane). The areas are close to tourist accommodation and beaches but when he alerted the local councillor and municipality to the tests, he was sent from “pillar to post”. 

“I think it’s very important that we understand our open source water, so whether that’s going into drinking water supplies or recreational use – whether it’s safe or not,” he told the Mail & Guardian

Highly compromised

South Africa is a water-scarce country and its resources are “highly compromised”, the report said. The country has an average rainfall that is about 50% less than the global average. Almost 65% of ecosystems are in a dire state of degradation that is projected to shrink available potable water by 17% by 2030.

“The little water that the country does have faces a barrage of challenges, such as climate change, prolonged droughts, pollution, waste and poor infrastructure and management. There is a significant inequality in water access between those who have water and the many millions who have little to no access at all.” 

Poor investment in the development and maintenance of infrastructure, mismanagement at a local government level and the lack of a culture of water conservation and responsible use of water by South Africans “will exacerbate how we respond to climate shocks”. 

‘Failing, corrupt’ government

A key factor that has led to poor water quantity and quality is failing and corrupt government, especially at a local level, the report said. 

In April, the Blue Drop (quality of drinking water) and Green Drop (quality of wastewater treatment) reports were released for the first time in nine years. “Both are red flags for the dire state of our drinking water and wastewater treatment.”

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. 

The Green Drop report highlights that only 23 wastewater systems qualified for Green Drop Certification and 334 (39%) of municipal wastewater systems were identified to be in a critical state. 

“The reports prove the significant sewage pollution by municipalities as well as the poor state of sewage infrastructure, management and accountability. The deteriorating quantity and quality of water in South Africa has a direct impact on people having access to safe, clean and sustainable drinking water.  

“Unsafe potable water poses a significant risk to human health and comes in the form of infectious diseases, reproductive problems and neurological disorders.”

‘Class action lawsuits’

The department of water and sanitation needs to hold municipal managers accountable for polluting raw water sources, and not the municipality, “as these fines are just passed on to the very ratepayer who has paid for the sewage to be cleaned in the first place”, according to the report.

WaterCAN wants to expand its project “so that we have thousands of people regularly testing our water. And where there are concerns, we need to act fast and use our activism to hold those responsible accountable. It is time for people to better monitor our water, as the government is failing to do so. 

“As a network, we need to continue demanding that our water is tested, results made public and, where this is not happening, activist citizen scientists, organisations and residents must think of class action cases to hold municipal managers personally criminally responsible for the failing water system.”