/ 6 June 2023

SA water quality has deteriorated and could pose a health risk – DWS

Gauteng residents that ran out of water collected the precious fluid from a tanker this week.
Gauteng residents collecting water from a tanker. File photo

South Africa’s drinking water quality has deteriorated, as has the condition of sampled water treatment works, the department of water and sanitation (DWS) said on Tuesday, when releasing its Green, Blue and No Drop Watch Reports. 

The department issued non-compliance notices to 90 municipalities following the release of the 2022 Green Drop report, ordering them to address their water challenges.

“The Green Drop Watch Report indicates that 50% of municipalities, whose waste water treatment systems were found to be in a critical state in the 2022 Green Drop Report, have failed to develop and implement plans to improve them,” said DWS director-general, Sean Phillips. 

The Green Drop Watch report and the Blue Drop Watch report are based on the 2022 Green Drop Report and the Blue Drop Assessment, while the No Drop Watch Report is a new release.

Phillips said that in 2013, when the last Green Drop assessment was done, “48 out of 824 municipal wastewater systems were in critical condition, indicating a decline between 2013 and 2022”.

The department described the report as “a regulatory tool and incentive-based programme to improve municipal drinking water quality, wastewater management as well as water conservation and demand management”.

Phillips said that according to the 2015 report, only 10% of municipalities had bad or poor microbiological water quality, as opposed to 50% in this sample, an indication that water quality was deteriorating.  

Drinking water from some municipal water treatment systems did not meet the national standard, he said, which could pose a serious health risk. 

Regarding wastewater treatment, “diagnostic analysis confirmed that the national Cumulative Risk Ratio for treatment plants regressed from 65.4% in medium-risk positions (in 2021), to 70.1% of plants in high-risk positions (in 2023)”.

In addition, the Blue Drop report found that 3% of water systems were in a critical condition, 12% were poor, 49% were average, 31% in good condition and only 5% in excellent condition. 

The Green Drop

The Green Drop Watch Report provides a picture of what has been done to address wastewater treatment systems that scored less than 30% in the 2022 Green Drop Report.

It found that 334 out of 850 (39%) municipal wastewater systems in 90 municipalities that are water services authorities (63% of the 144 water services authorities) are in critical condition. 

By March 2023, only 34 of the 168 plans submitted to the department were being implemented, with the balance being in the planning phase or with no progress reported. 

The department also raised concern about “the growing number of wastewater networks and treatment systems that were found to be in a critical state, with Green Drop scores of less than 31%”. 

The report identified key problems as being funding, resources, vandalism and theft, poor infrastructure and lack of capacity in municipalities. 

The department said it was looking to strengthen collaboration with municipalities to improve the treatment plants, which are not effective.

The No Drop

The No Drop report looks at demand-side management and water losses. In the last No Drop report, released in 2015, an estimated 35% of water was classified as non-revenue. In the latest report, this figure had increased to about 50%. 

The report found that the country’s big metros were able to report findings effectively, but that many smaller ones struggled. Overall, it found that water loss was on the increase and non revenue water, which is water lost and not reaching a user, was high. 

Philips said that “a total 46% of water municipalities don’t collect revenue from water”.

“Water losses and unbilled make up non-revenue — under 30% is the international average. We are much higher at 46%. Municipalities must improve infrastructure, repair leaks and engage with communities on water conservation.” 

 Responding to the reports, the executive manager of OUTA’s WaterCAN, Dr Ferrial Adam, said: “The statistics in these reports are not new, they do not give us an updated or informed view of any progress or decline. 

“However, they are a way for the DWS to show its intent on compliance and highlight the extent of non-compliance by water service authorities. The reports emphasise the challenges we face as only 50% of non-compliant water service authorities reached out to DWS. The rest seem not to care that our water is not fit for human consumption.” 

The department has issued non-compliance notices to 11 municipalities that did not report water quality data or other evidence indicating that they had been testing their water.

Phillips said those 11 municipalities had been instructed to issue “advisory notices to their residents that their water might not be safe to drink if it has not been properly tested.”

The interim Green Drop and full Blue Drop Reports will be released in July, while the full No Drop Report will be released in September.