Widespread water woes

2012-03-10 14:55

If you live in one of South Africa’s big cities, you are probably privileged enough to be drinking some of the world’s best water.

But drive just a few kilometres out to the countryside and the tap water there might give you a nasty stomach bug – or even poison you with heavy metals.

That’s according to the department of water affairs, which says it is “concerned” about some towns’ water quality.

This week was South Africa’s annual Water Week.

“We are concerned about the quality of (water in) Carolina, Jansenville, Klipplaat, Norvalspont, Koppies, Heilbron and Grabouw,” said Leonardo Manus, the department’s director of water services regulation.

But Manus said “at this point” the majority of South Africans had access to tap water that complied very well with the national standard for drinking-water quality.
A variety of international scientific studies support his view.

There are also only 12 countries in the world that supply tap water that is fit to drink, and South Africa is one of them.

A study conducted by the Water Research Commission and South African Local Government Association, which was released last month, found that 81% of urban South Africans loved the quality of their tap water.

But urban consumers in non-metro municipalities in the Northern Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga had the lowest confidence in their tap water, the study found.

Many rivers in South Africa – like the Wilge, Vaal and Crocodile – are badly polluted.

Water boards such as Rand Water, Lepelle Water and Umgeni Water then treat this water and make it perfectly drinkable.

Problems arise in underresourced and cash-strapped municipalities, where water treatment plants have in some cases shut down entirely.

In the department of water affairs’ most recent Blue Drop report – in which water quality is measured – more than 50 towns scored below 20% for their water quality.

Writing about Norvalspont, near Noupoort in the Northern Cape, the department said: “Inadequate management of drinking water quality is then also cause for the poor microbiological compliance recorded. No chemical monitoring was performed.

“The compliance records suggest that the bacteriological quality of the water was not up to standard for long periods in time.”

Getting a good score in the Blue Drop report doesn’t necessarily mean a town or city has good
tap water.

Heilbron in the Free State scored 68% in the Blue Drop report – but the department was quick to note that “actual drinking-water quality in 2010 posed a risk of infection to consumers”.

Heilbron resident Jeanette Botha said no one drank the town’s water.

“It is simply too dangerous. Green, icky goo comes out of the tap on a regular basis. Sometimes the municipality dumps chlorine in the water supply and then it irritates our skin,” Botha said.

Overall, Gauteng and the Western Cape’s water scored the best in the Blue Drop report, while the Northern Cape and North West rated poorly. But by far the worst province was Mpumalanga.

The country’s latest water crisis is unfolding in Carolina in Mpumalanga, where the tap water has been labelled the worst in South Africa.

Minister of Water Affairs Edna Molewa visited Carolina on Friday.

Said Manus: “The situation in Carolina has improved significantly since the initial state of contamination was detected in January 2012.

“The drinking water is no longer acidic, but metal content at times fluctuates beyond acceptable limits.

“Alkalinity levels also make the water highly reactive with other chemicals, which is cause for discolouration. As an alternative, for drinking purposes, water is being delivered by tanker at strategic places across the town.”

The local mines’ pollution, and more specifically acid mine drainage, are being blamed for the Carolina disaster, and scientists have noted that acid mine drainage presents a very real threat to South Africa’s drinking water in future.

In Potchefstroom the state of tap water is a hot topic among residents, many of whom believe it is radioactive and polluted by heavy metals from the mines nearby.

Residents in Potchefstroom told City Press that as a precaution they always bought bottled water for drinking.
But the department and the municipality say the water has to be of an excellent quality.

Manus said the department had noted residents’ concerns, and investigated both reports of heavy metals and radioactivity in Potchefstroom’s water.

He said the levels were well within the national standard for metals in water, as well as the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for radioactivity.

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