/ 10 June 2023

Water quality reports are ‘hard proof’ of ANC’s inability to improve performance

Untreated sewage flowed into Durban harbour after pumps at the Mahatma Gandhi Road  treatment plant broke.
File: Untreated sewage flows into Durban harbour after pumps at the Mahatma Gandhi Road treatment plant broke. Photo by Rogan Ward

Thirteen years ago, 10% of municipalities in South Africa supplied drinking water with bad or poor microbiological quality to their residents — a figure that has soared to 50%.

The cost of restoring and refurbishing the country’s dysfunctional water supply systems amounts to almost R1.5 billion, with the bulk of investment needed for the Free State and KwaZulu-Natal.

This is according to the 2023 Blue Drop Watch report, which was released by the department of water and sanitation last week. It provides a technical assessment of the condition of infrastructure and drinking water quality at a sample of supply systems in the country. 

In July, the department will release the full 2023 Blue Drop Report, which will be a complete assessment of the state of all drinking water systems in the country and will include the skills and qualifications of municipal staff.

Water specialist Anthony Turton, of the Centre for Environmental Management at the University of the Free State, said water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu had promised to reinstate the Blue and Green Drop reports, “which he’s done, even though it shows just how bad it is”. 

“I think that has shown that he and his director general [Sean Phillips] have, at least, some integrity. And I think the other thing that it shows, which is quite insidious, is that there is the probability of litigation coming against, let’s call it ‘non-performing’, municipalities. And by issuing those directives, against those non-performers, what’s effectively happened is the minister is starting to strip away the collective immunity or herd immunity of the ANC.

“They’re starting to see the bad stuff coming — the criminal prosecution as a result of the deaths in Hammanskraal and, with that, I think they’re saying, if there’s going to be prosecution, it mustn’t be at head office level, it must be out there …. That’s a very important, subtle interpretation about what I think is happening.”

South Africa’s water system is quite clearly failing, he said. “In fact, if anything, what you’ve got here is hard numerical proof that in the 30 years, almost, that the ANC has been in power, it has demonstrated zero capacity to learn on the job and improve its performance.” 

Grim findings

A total of 151 water supply systems out of more than 1 000 were inspected for the report, with an average score of 69% achieved by the systems assessed which, the report said, indicates that infrastructure and processes are, on average, “partially functional with an average performance”.

The best overall performing water supply systems are found in Gauteng, followed by Western Cape and Eastern Cape. Those in “poor” and “critical” states are in the Free State, Limpopo, Northern Cape and North West. 

Out of 151 treatment plants, 59 systems (39%) achieved excellent microbiological quality and 17 systems (11%) achieved good microbiological quality. Thirteen systems (9%) have a poor microbiological water quality status and 62 systems (41%) have a bad microbiological water quality status. 

Acute health risks

The water from the 62 systems with poor microbiological water quality poses a “serious acute health risk to the users”, the report said, noting that authorities with poor microbiological water quality status “must be monitored to ensure suitable rectification measures are taken to safeguard communities”. 

“The direct cause of microbiological failures can be linked to failure to produce water that complies with the SANS [SA national standards] E coli standard can be linked to poor operation, defect infrastructure, incorrect dosing rates, absence of disinfection chemicals, lack of monitoring or lack of operating and chemistry knowledge.  

Chemical compliance shows that only 25 systems (17%) achieved excellent water quality and 20 systems (13%) have good water quality, while 106 systems (70%) failed to achieve chemical compliance. A concerning 83 systems (55%) and 23 systems (15%) at water treatment plants are in a critical state, with bad and poor water quality compliance, respectively. 

“The department notes with concern the overall poor water quality that is produced and distributed to the consumer,” the report said. “A balanced view is also taken on the results from the technical assessments, showing systems that range from excellent to critical.”

While the national technical site assessment shows the average water supply system to be partially dysfunctional and of average performance, the water quality compliance shows that the majority of systems fail to produce compliant final water quality. 

“This means that while the infrastructure condition showed partial functionality, the treatment plants failed to produce high-quality drinking water. The conclusion being that a fully functional treatment plant, with adequate process control, is crucial to produce safe final water,” the report said.

‘Radical intervention’

It concluded that water quality is the most concerning finding from this report. “It highlights that the majority of water treatment works does not produce SANS 241 compliant water, irrespective of its technical site assessment condition and performance.” 

It would require “radical intervention” by the government to ensure that the required hardware, funds, competency and chemicals are in place to supply safe water to consumers. 

“The lack of water quality monitoring is alarming, as water services institutions cannot operate and improve water services and quality if they do not know their basic status. An average performing and partly functional treatment system will not produce SANS compliant water. High-quality water will only be guaranteed if a plant is fully functional, well operated with the required operational know-how, and with all chemicals to deliver the desired output water.”

During the audit period, 11 municipalities did not submit water quality data to the department or provide any evidence that they had been testing their water quality. It 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.

Polluting effluent 

In April last year, the department’s Green Drop report identified 334 wastewater systems in a critical condition in 90 municipalities. 

After its release, the department issued non-compliance notices to all these municipalities, requesting them to submit corrective action plans to address the shortcomings identified in the report. In July, the department will release the Green Drop Risk Report, which will identify the critical areas for wastewater treatment systems in the country.

The latest Green Drop Watch report revealed that the department received corrective action plans from municipalities for 168 of the 334 wastewater systems. Forty-three of the 90 municipalities requested support from the department to develop corrective action plans. But, by the end of March, only 34 of the 168 plans submitted to the department were being implemented, with the balance being in the planning phase or having no progress reported.

Criminal charges have been laid against some of the municipalities which have not submitted corrective action plans. 

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”, the report found.


WaterCAN, an initiative of Outa, said the reports show the “horrifying state” of South Africa’s drinking water and sewage systems and the “apparent acceptance of this situation by water service authorities and water service providers. These are mostly municipalities but also include water boards. 

“WaterCAN believes that if this high level of non-compliance is left unchecked, water-borne disease outbreaks, such as the deadly cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal and now reported in five provinces, will increase and possibly become endemic.”

Another report, the No Drop Watch report states that 4.3 million m3/pa of water is being treated for municipal use but almost half — 2 million m3/pa — is being lost to non-revenue water which includes leaks, poor billing and lack of metering. This is a huge increase on the estimated 35% non-revenue water reported in the last No Drop report in 2015. 

“Civil society has been saying for years that fixing leaks could reduce the water stress on our cities. It could be the first step to ensuring we have water-safe municipalities,” Ferrial Adam, of WaterCAN said.

Contaminated waterways

South Africa is a water-scarce country, said Anja du Plessis, associate professor and research specialist in integrated water resource management at Unisa. “We have received very good rainfall in the past three years, however, the river systems and the streams have now almost reached the saturation point of pollution. There’s almost no buffering capacity left. 

The Vaal River and Vaal Dam would usually dilute pollutants that would only gather at the Vaal Barrage. “Now, the whole system is vrot. So, you have people basically living mostly in vulnerable and rural areas, they either have no water supply, or intermittent water supply, or the water given to them is not of a suitable water quality, so they have major health risks there.

“Then the only option they basically have is to go to the river to either irrigate their subsistence farms or to use for washing, cooking and drinking because there is no water and then you’re having five of the nine provinces declaring cholera cases … So, you’re losing water, your water is contaminated and then you obviously have no transparency or accountability or enforcement.”

While the department is taking criminal action against non-compliant municipalities, Du Plessis asked what the interim plan is “to actually assist people in actually having clean drinking water, which is a constitutional right. We know that these cases can take years”.