Two East Cape towns’ water is unsafe to drink

Denise Williams and Guy Rogers

THE water in two Eastern Cape municipalities has been red-flagged as unsafe to drink and in two others it has been highlighted as needing attention.

Releasing the 2012 Blue Drop report on the country’s water supply quality, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa said yesterday areas in Sundays River Valley, OR Tambo, Ikwezi and Koukamma municipalities were of grave concern.

In Koukamma and Ikwezi, she went as far as singling the water out as “not at all” safe.

“The unsatisfactory performance of Koukamma is reflected … noting the need for urgent overall improvement,” Molewa said.

The municipalities in question provide water to towns including Jansenville, Waterford, Clarkson, Sanddrif, Storms River and Woodlands.

Risks to the water included “high microbiological failure” and a lack of commitment to respond to the problem such as treatment of the water or the need for disinfectants, she said.

Eastern Cape Water Affairs Department water regulation and use directorate head Andrew Lucas said action was under way to tackle the municipalities struggling with water management issues.

“We have established a rapid response unit to tackle problems as soon as they arrive,” he said.

“We are working in cooperation with a similar unit established by the provincial local government department and others. We will be continuing with this strategy after looking at the new Blue Drop report to see where the points of concern are and how we can improve.”

A water management expert, who did not want to be named, said high microbiological failure meant the water had not been properly disinfected, resulting in high counts of e.coli, faecal coli or other bacteria.

“Basically, the problem referred to by the minister is poor or non-existent management,” he said. “Unfortunately, these authorities either do not realise the importance of this water management or are not interested because it does not bring votes.”

He said good management would entail properly staffing all water treatment plants.

“Your operators must be certified, for instance, in how to administer chlorine, which is poisonous unless it is administered properly.

“You’ve got to have sufficient skilled staff to do regular analysis and maintenance, and to warn consumers if your water is not complying with standards.

“These are all the little blocks needed to run a successful water supply service.”

He said the good news was that initiatives like the Blue Drop campaign were slowly making a difference because particular problem areas were being identified and addressed.

Nationally, 13 other municipalities have also been red-flagged as having unsafe drinking water, with Mpumalanga the worst, with five.

However, Molewa was insistent that on the whole, South Africa’s water was safe. “I am pleased that, through our efforts … South Africa’s tap water remains the best in the world and we are one of only a handful of countries where you can drink water directly from the tap.”

She said the report showed that the overall national drinking water compliance figure was 98.93%.

In a breakdown per province, Ekurhuleni in Gauteng had the highest scorecard of 98.95%, closely followed by Johannesburg with 98.92%.

The other top 10 included municipalities in the Western Cape, North West and KwaZulu-Natal.

Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape received the lowest rating with an overall 60.9% and 68.2% respectively.

Of the total 153 water services sampled, 98 received Blue Drop Award status. To qualify for this, municipalities needed to ensure they scored above 95% in adherence to the requirements and compliance with the SA Bureau of Standards. Requirements included risk management, the necessary personnel skills, management commitment and infrastructure.

Molewa said particular mention needed to be made of Victor Kanye Local Municipality, formerly Delmas, and Thembisile Local Municipality in Mpumalanga for scores which had “astonishingly” improved as a result of changes in the management approach.

She said it was not just the sample quality of the water that was factored into how an area was rated but also the ability for water-safety planning.

Audits had revealed that only 154 systems had plans in place last year but this had risen to 579 this year.

“The significance of water-safety planning is that it is a safety net to ensure people’s lives are not placed at risk when … contamination occurs.”

An example of this was the way in which government was able to address the contamination of drinking water in Diepsloot, an informal settlement north of Johannesburg, where authorities were able to shut down the water supply. The water became contaminated on April 12 after a sewage spill but services were restored on April 22.

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