It's easier to get a McDonald's burger than clean water in some rural towns, Africa Utility Week hears

2019-05-18 19:04
(Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

(Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

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It is easier to get a McDonald's hamburger in some rural South African towns than it is to get clean drinking water, says the Water Research Commission (WRC).

"In some rural areas, local governments are failing. You need to understand that," Jay Bhagwan, head of the WRC's waste and water management, told delegates at African Utility Week at the Cape Town Convention Centre.

"You can get a Shell garage or a McDonald's, but not good, clean water. It's a failure of our public service model."

Bhagwan said what one did find, in some of these rural areas, are local people who had ideas to help solve some of the water-related problems residents faced.

These community-based entrepreneurs needed to be given an opportunity to develop, or the gap would never be closed, Bhagwan added.

One obstacle was that they did not have an "open regulatory pathway" to carry out their plans.

Bhagwan was speaking at the conference's AfriAlliance Innovation Bridge event, designed to link universities and companies that work in water and climate change areas with funders and investors who can help commercialise inventions.

One of these inventions was the VulAmanz water filter that cleans dirty water – even water contaminated with faecal matter – to meet international drinking standards, delivering 25 litres an hour.

'In some areas, even tap water not safe'

Laurie Barwell, a water and coastal hydraulic engineer who used to work for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), told delegates at the bridge event that he needed a R5m investment to take the VulAmanz water filter from a pilot study in rural areas to mass production.

In many areas people used contaminated river water.

"In some areas even the tap water is contaminated," he said.

The filter, designed for use in rural households, has been certified by the CSIR and independently audited by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

Read: Severe water shortages a norm in some towns

The WRC and the Department of Science and Technology have funded a pilot project in which the water filters were distributed to people in certain rural areas in Limpopo and the northern parts of the Eastern Cape.

Barwell said a grandmother, who looked after her seven-month-old grandchild in rural Limpopo, was his best advertisement.

"She has a filter. Since she's been using it, she no longer has to take the baby to the clinic for diarrhoea treatment."

Barwell said the woman had been such a regular visitor to the clinic, that when she had not appeared for a few weeks, the clinic sister became worried and went to her house to see what had happened.

"And she found the baby was fat and happy. All that had happened was that the baby was getting clean water now through the filter."

Bottled water

Barwell said that in some rural towns the water infrastructure was old and not maintained. Sometimes there was water in the taps just for a few days and then it was off. And the tap water was not always clean.

"In the Limpopo province, there are thousands of people without access to clean water."

He said many people spent R80 a week on bottled water, which gave them just 20 litres of water.

As there were only a limited number of the water filters for each village in the pilot project, the residents themselves had decided who should get them. They chose the elderly with chronic illnesses and households with babies. 

Also read: Ermelo community's 40-year struggle for safe drinking water

Barwell said currently, the filters are being hand made and cost R2 500.

"With mass production, we can bring that down to R1 500 each."

Some households in rural areas, where the drinking water was contaminated, were spending around R4 000 a year on bottled water.

The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef)  estimates that globally, 2 000 children under the age of five die every day from diarrhoeal diseases. About 90% of these deaths are directly linked to contaminated water, lack of sanitation and hygiene.

Unicef's head of water and sanitation, Sanjay Wijesekera, has said these high numbers sometimes obscure the human tragedies under the statistics.

"If 90 school buses filled with kindergarteners were to crash every day, with no survivors, the world would take notice. But this is what happens every day because of poor water, sanitation and hygiene," Wijesekera said.                                                  

Read more on:    cape town  |  water
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