Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Thousands exposed to unsafe tap water in South Africa

Thembi Mogoba gives her son, Kgothatso, water from a tap outside their home in Diepsloot, north of Johannesburg. Diepsloot residents experienced problems with drinking water in the area earlier this year Picture: LAUREN MULLIGAN

Thousands of South Africans, mainly in rural areas, could be exposed to life-threatening waterborne diseases from drinking unsafe tap water.

It emerged that drinking water from 14 municipalities in seven provinces was unsafe for human consumption .

The startling findings, contained in the 2012 Blue Drop Report, were released by Water Affairs Minister Edna Molewa yesterday.

"Residents and visitors are hereby warned not to consume the tap water supplied in these towns without some form of acceptable disinfecting treatment at home [boiling or the addition of bleach]," the report says.

The red-flagged municipalities include Ikwezi and Koukamma in the Eastern Cape, and Bushbuckridge, Chief Albert Luthuli, Mkhondo, Msukaligwa and Nkomazi in Mpumalanga.

Also red-flagged are the Free State's Letsemeng, Ngwathe, Nketoane and Phumelela, Thabazimbi in Limpopo, Ngaka Modiri Molema district in the North West and Umsobomvu in Northern Cape.

However, Gauteng residents can breathe easier - none of its municipalities has been red-flagged.

Water quality in Ekurhuleni received a quality rating of 98.95% and Johannesburg 98.92%, making the two the best in the country.

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

Mpumalanga and Northern Cape received the lowest rating, 60.9% and 68.2% respectively.

Despite the problems with water quality in certain areas, Molewa said tap water in South Africa "remains the best in the world".

"We are one of only a handful of countries where you can drink water directly from the tap," she said.

Yesterday's warning to residents of the 14 affected municipalities, said Molewa, remained in place until their managers communicated otherwise.

While no official warnings had previously been issued to residents of the red-flagged areas, the report says that in some areas the continuous non-supply of safe water was "of great concern".

"The significance of water safety planning is that it is a safety net to ensure people's lives are not placed at risk when issues of contamination occur," said Molewa.

Of grave concern was the Eastern Cape's Ikwezi and Koukamma municipalities' water, which she singled out as "not at all safe".

The Eastern Cape has over the years been plagued by contaminated water scandals.

At least 131 babies died in 2008 between January and April in the Ukhahlamba District Municipality from "an inexorable causal link between elements of water supply contamination, poor sanitation and hygiene levels, and diarrhoea infections".

Water supplies to Livingstone Hospital in Port Elizabeth were found to have been contaminated with potentially deadly bacteria in September, putting the sick and the elderly, as well as young children, at risk of diarrhoea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia, the report shows.

"Although no Western Cape municipalities have been red-flagged, the department is concerned about the quality of water supplied to residents of Kannaland Local Municipality.

While not issuing a tap-water drinking warning, it says drinking water quality management "is not taking place according to regulatory expectations".

In Northern Cape, the report notes that the ability of one municipality to supply safe water continuously was "of great concern".

Leonard Manus, director of water services regulation, said the national department had sampled water from municipalities from January 2011 to December, and risks to the water included high microbiological failure and a lack of commitment to respond to the problems such as water treatment or the need for disinfectants.

Manus said water safety was a priority for the department and it would provide "full support and assistance" to the hot spots.

No specific deadlines have been given for the municipalities to clean their water, but Manus said: "We will work with the teams and give them all the support, but we will also put pressure on them to sort it out as soon as possible."

He warned that the department would take action against municipalities that did not cooperate, including taking them to court.

"We will take the municipalities and the accounting officers [municipal managers] to court for neglecting to comply with legislation."

The department is currently embroiled in a court case involving the Madibeng Municipality in the North West.

Various officials in the Madibeng Municipality have since 2010 been facing two separate sets of criminal charges for discharging unpurified sewage into the Crocodile River.

Madibeng is but one of the 47% of South Africa's waste-water treatment works that received a zero Green Drop score in 2009.

Manus said R220-million was channelled through the Accelerated Community Infrastructure Programme last year alone to address water related issues.

This excluded funds from the Regional Grant for Bulk Infrastructure. He said these amounts would increase this year and would be announced when Molewa delivers her budget speech on May 16.

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

Molewa also 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.

- Times Live