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Andre Walters takes a look at the current state of water in South Africa following the release of the latest National State of Water report

Clean and safe drinking and other water is a serious issue in our country. The National State of Water report from the DWS helps water managers with their decision making and identifies problem areas. It informs the public on the status of our water resources and sanitation.

The latest report is rather worrying. It reveals details about areas with poor water quality and it raises health concerns. Apparently, more than half of South Africa’s drinking water does not meet acceptable chemical water quality standards. We are looking at disasters all over the place—the cholera plague, terrible floods in KZN killing many people. It just seems to be getting worse and worse.

The first question that springs to mind is this: which provinces in SA have the best, or the worst, water supplies? The answer to this question raises the hair on the back of your neck!

For example, between 2015 and 2018, Cape Town suffered a one-in-400-year drought which took about 4.6 million people to the brink of “day zero”—the point when Cape Town would run out of water.

Which province in South Africa has the cleanest water? Gauteng has the best water quality in South Africa, followed by the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Where in South Africa is there a ‘hard water’ problem? Well, just to be sure that we understand what they are saying to us in their report, ‘hard water’ is water that contains a lot of dissolved minerals (like calcium and magnesium). Soft water, on the other hand, is free from dissolved salts and metals such as calcium, iron, or magnesium, which form insoluble deposits that, for instance, can appear as scale in boilers or soap curds in bathtubs and laundry equipment.

And then there is rainwater and ground water. Well, total hardness in rainwater is low, whereas in some areas of South Africa, especially the Northern Cape, ground water is unfortunately very hard due to the soluble calcium and magnesium properties of the geology of the area. According to the Borehole Association of South Africa, “Groundwater from non-polluted areas is generally safe for domestic purposes—to drink, prepare food, wash clothes, bath, and water the garden. Generally, water from boreholes is already of high quality because it has been filtered through many layers of chalk or sand, so it only needs disinfection with chlorine.”

South Africa is characterised by what is described as having a high spatial variability in rainfall, with the east of the country lying in the summer rainfall zone (with high rainfalls), while the west of the country lies in a winter rainfall region that is said to vary from semi-arid to arid. River systems are the common surface water availability in South Africa and, of course, lakes, ponds, and pans.

Now here is our challenge: As a developing country, South Africa requires additional water resources to support the growing economy. With 98% of the country’s available water resources already allocated, opportunities to supplement future water requirements are rather limited.

The Department of Water and Sanitation, as the public trustee or custodian of the nation’s water resources, has a vital and significant job to do in managing the country’s water resources.

And here is one of the crunchers in the department’s water report: They say that South Africa’s water security is threatened by a decrease in water supply due to the negative impacts that come from climate change, the degradation of wetland water resources, and the siltation of dams. Also, water losses and demands are escalating due to population and economic growth, urbanisation, inefficient use, and changing lifestyles.

In short, the Department of Water and Sanitation, as the custodian of the nation’s water resources and a public trustee, is obliged by the National Water Act (Act No. 36 of 1998) to establish monitoring networks and information systems and report on the status of the water resources in the country. Their water report, which is published annually:

  • Communicates the available water resource information to the public;
  • Aims to assist water users in decision-making;
  • Evaluates the implementation of legislation;
  • Highlights identified problem areas;
  • Outlines measures taken by the department to eradicate highlighted issues; and
  • Balances the water demand and supply.

Climate change is one of the most important drivers of the hydrological response of a catchment area. It includes rainfall, temperature, solar radiation, relative humidity, wind speed, and evaporation. Climate change puts additional pressure on the naturally stressed water resources of South Africa. This puts pressure on water availability, accessibility, quality, and demand. Climate change can have an exaggerated effect on runoff, and the complex response of the hydrological system worsens the impacts. During the summer months of the reporting period, for example, the monthly maximum temperatures were above average by up to 4 degrees Celsius in some areas; mainly in the Western Cape and southern parts of the Eastern Cape. The Western Cape again experienced higher-than-average maximum temperatures in the winter months.

The rainfall received during the hydrological year 2021/22 was above normal for almost all parts of South Africa, apart from a strip on the southwestern coastline of the Western Cape. The Western Cape winter rainfall region has shown a drying trend or phase from July to September, which may intensify drought conditions. Rainfall was significantly above the normal levels for the Northern Cape. The country’s eastern half has received significantly above-normal rainfall in the past two hydrological years (2020/2021 and 2021/2022). This has resulted in a decrease in the number of areas in the country experiencing drought conditions over the past four hydrological years.

Here are the names of some such places: Nelson Mandela Bay, Sarah Baartman, Sekhukhune, Namakwa, City of Cape Town, Eden, Overberg, West Coast, and the Cape Wine Lands Districts Municipalities have all been affected by meteorological drought over the last 24 months and they require close monitoring and interventions.

As mentioned, the country has also experienced a significant flood event in the KwaZulu-Natal, where the South African Weather Service (SAWS) reportedly measured rainfall ranging between 200-500mm from April to May 2022. The rainfall resulted from a strong cut-off low weather system off the east coast of Southern Africa. The heavy rains led to a rapid increase in dam levels, as most of the dams were already at their full supply level before heavy rains between the 11th and 12th of April 2022. The KZN floods were declared a provincial disaster and about 448 fatalities were reported. Businesses, roads, bridges, and electricity and water infrastructure were damaged or destroyed. An estimated 130 000 people were affected, with more than 19 182 houses and 264 schools destroyed.

And now, cholera is attacking us in unexpected ways and places. Cholera, which was largely eliminated from industrialised countries by water and sewage treatment over a century ago, still remains a significant cause of illness and death in many African countries. Improving global access to water, sanitation, and hygiene is a critical step to reducing Africa’s cholera burden.

And then there is E. coli. E. coli and other bacteria show that the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes. Leaking sewerage pipes have been in the news of late. Drinking water with these wastes can cause diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms.

But there is also some good news in the report. It says that the national average groundwater levels status has been showing an upward recovery trend since October 2019 and it was just below 60% (normal) at the end of the reporting period. This can be attributed to the above-normal rainfall received in the current and previous years, which has recharged aquifers.

The so-called ‘Blue Drop and Green Drop’ assessments are also interesting. The Green Drop report, for example, is a comprehensive assessment of the state of all waste water treatment systems in South Africa, including municipal, Department of Public Works, and private waste water treatment systems. The report states that the Blue Drop programme thoroughly assesses drinking water quality compliance. The Blue Drop Certification programme is the regulation tool introduced by DWEA with the aim of restoring the trust of the general public in the quality of tap water, by certifying the water quality of a municipality.

The department has been working very hard at this. For example, 144 Water Services Authorities in South Africa, comprising of 1 186 water supply systems, were investigated during the assessment period. The Blue Drop assessment says that 48% of our water supply systems are in the low-risk category—mainly in the Gauteng and Western Cape, while 34% of the systems are in the high-risk and critical risk categories.

The Green Drop programme assesses the design and operating capacity of waste water to agreed standards, local regulations, and infrastructure management and conditions. A total of 144 municipalities were audited during the 2021 Green Drop certification process. Sadly, most rural municipalities struggle to score more than 50%. Only 5% of rural municipalities achieved this score in comparison to 75% of the systems in Gauteng. More positively, our country has achieved a sanitation delivery of 84%, and the percentage of households with access to improved sanitation has increased by 22.4% from 61.7% in 2002 to 84.1% in 2021. The most improved provinces are the Eastern Cape, where the percentage of households with access to improved sanitation increased by 58.3%, and Limpopo, which increased from 31.6% to 58.6% in 2021.

The department has taken very strong initiatives to address South Africa’s water resource quality. The report says, “One of the successful projects was the development of the Eutrophication Management Strategy of 2022, which will be ‘…used as a tool to address issues related to the degradation of the water resources due to excessive nutrient enrichment in the water resources. Eutrophication is a big word that describes a big problem in the nation’s estuaries. Harmful algal blooms, dead zones, and fish kills are the results of a process called eutrophication—which occurs when the environment becomes over-enriched with nutrients, increasing the amount of plant and algae growth to estuaries and coastal waters’.”

There can be no doubt: water is life! And the Department of Water and Sanitation is doing everything that is possible to preserve our lives into the future.

Andre Walters is a veteran broadcaster.

By Editor