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Nov 19, 2010

'Blue Drop' water quality scheme gains momentum, but critics say more is needed

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Water quality and availability have become matters of growing concern in South Africa. The yearly renewable freshwater supply per capita currently stands at between 1 000 m3 and 1 700 m3, but this will likely shrink to less than 500 m³ by 2025, according to the World Resources Institute.

Any amount less than 1 000 m3 a person means that water stresses are likely to begin to hamper economic development, environmental sustainability and human health.

To avoid this potentially debilitating reality, South Africa reportedly needs to invest R2,6-billion in water infrastructure every year until 2030.

But quantity is but one side of the equation. To avoid a full-blown crisis, the authorities also need to keep an eye on the quality of supply.

As part of its quality mitigation efforts, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs (DWA) has instituted the ‘Blue Drop’ certification programme, an incentive-based regulatory approach designed to help improve the level of quality and delivery within the water sector.

Water services authorities are awarded Blue Drop status if they are compliant with drinking water legislative requirements, as well as other leading practices in the management of potable water.

The scheme is a first for South Africa and is also regarded internationally as unique in the drinking water regulatory domain.

The idea is to build, and in some case to restore, public confidence in tap-water quality.

It is also designed to ensure that authorities and providers alike improve their performance, while offering certified towns and municipalities the confidence to approach investors and tourists with an independent water quality guarantee.

Pioneering Effort
DWA water services regulation director Leonardo Manus tells Engineering News that the scheme should be seen in the context of fairly immature moves globally to implement regulation in the sector.

Hitherto, economic regulation has also received much of the emphasis, with technical regulation having only gained real momentum in the last decade.

“This makes our incentive-based regulation approach to drinking water quality a real pioneering element in this field,” Manus explains.

The department is a member of the World Health Organisation’s Regulators Network (RegNet), and recently attended the third RegNet meeting, in Montreal, Canada, where the Blue Drop Certification Programme was well received – to the extent that the next RegNet meeting is to be held in South Africa to enable further exposure to the approach being adopted here.

Blue Drop certification means that the city or town concerned has scored 95% or higher for its compliance with stringent criteria set, including chemical and microbiological standards.

In audits conducted between October last year and February this year,
Johannesburg achieved a score of 96,36%, Tshwane 98,39% and Mangaung 95,05% in terms of the Blue Drop assessment.

For the past six months, the overall South African drinking water quality was measured at 96% on average for both microbiological and chemical determinants.

This figure shows a significant improvement in the ‘2009 Blue Drop’ report, which was 93,3%.

Umfula Wempilo Consulting founder and South African Institution of Civil Engineering council member Dr Chris Herold concurs that the programme is a “valuable yardstick against which to measure performance”. He says that it also helps to identify problem municipalities and highlights areas for urgent intervention.

But Herold also advocates “naming and shaming” underperforming municipalities, so as to increase pressure on them to perform.

TouchStone Resources’ Dr Anthony Turton is also concerned that, given government’s embattled position, a “strong spin element” currently surrounds the programme, as well as other departmental initiatives.

He believes that there is a need for a public acknowledgement that water quality is deteriorating nationally. “Instead, the spin doctors are saying that there is no problem, which prevents solution thinking or solution implementation.”

In the absence of accepting the problem, response plans will be “piecemeal” – a kind of “patch and pray aimed at placating con- sumers, combined with an attempt to discredit commentators who persist in their view that there is a problem”.

For him, much of the answer rests with political will rather than technology.

It remains to be seen whether newly appointed Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa, who replaces Buyelwa Sonjica, following President Jacob Zuma’s recent Cabinet reshuffle, will rise to the occasion.

Municipal Feedback
But the municipalities canvassed are more sanguine about the initiative and its initial outcomes.

The City of Tshwane believes that the scheme has already supported improved water service delivery, owing to the fact that providers are now “accountable to an external body”.

This accountability has encouraged and prioritised all facets of drinking water quality, such as monitoring and compliance, failure response, asset management, trained staff and risk identification and control.

The City of eThekwini describes it as an “excellent tool” to improve performance, particularly when coupled with the associated Green Drop Certification Programme for sewage treatment works.

“It is too early to call it a success, if success is measured by every municipality having water that is well managed and safe to drink. Its success to date lies in the fact that more municipalities have Blue Drop certification in 2010 than was the case for 2009 ,” says Water and Sanitation head Neil Macleod.

Manus says the department is currently working to improve and increase the resources required to ensure the sustainable effective execution of its drinking water quality regulation function.

This includes the expansion of the structure to increase the resources available and the continued training with the aim of achieving ISO accreditation for its regulation approach (which would be another global pioneering initiative).

“While critics ensure that the department maintains focus and amends the programme to be even more effective and relevant, the negative side is that some public statements are uninformed and spread incorrect impressions, which results in a constant attack on the credibility of the programme,” reiterates Manus.

Challenges Remain
But the challenge remains to ensure that focus is maintained to constantly enhance the quality of the Blue Drop certification programme.

Even though the majority of municipal officials have shown a positive response to the programme, not all involved or affiliated to the municipal processes are fully conversant with the aims of the programme, because some consultants who have yet to comprehend principles such as water safety planning are providing advice on this matter.

“This is being addressed through ensuring continued awareness of the programme.”

But Turton notes that not all municipalities are equal, as some have capacity and they generally want to improve things, while many others lack capacity and have no chance of making a difference.

“I was recently in the Eastern Cape, where I was informed that the local authority had zero revenue from the people they provided services to. They were 100% dependent on grants from central government. This is clearly not sustainable, so it is from small local authorities like these that many of the problems arise.”

He asserts that one needed a credible central authority that is both willing and capable of enforcing the law, as, if it is not enforced, all else amounts to nothing.

The chronic underpricing of water is also a key constraint. “Frankly, our main constraint is the price of water, which is artificially low for political reasons. Many technological solutions become viable when water is priced at R10/kℓ.”

Human Capacity
A more universally accepted concern relates to the issue of skills, both technical and administrative.

“If people were appointed to jobs based purely on technical capability, and not on party loyalty, then the human capacity problem would vanish,” says Turton.

At municipal level, the problems is even more acute, owing to the fact that much engineering expertise has been lost. Many municipalities do not have a single engineer or engineering technician. Some even lack the capacity to draw up a contract with outside providers.

In fact, Herold cites the acute skills shortage as the biggest bottleneck to assuring both adequate quantity and quality of water. Even the megacities and larger district municipalities are losing skills and institu-tional memory “at an alarming rate”.

The skills challenge is a generic one, but also afflicts the Blue Drop scheme.

In response, the department has trained 86 aspirant assessors, of which 53 are qualified to be used as Blue Drop 2011 inspectors. Successful candidates have been divided into panels and have been allocated a number of municipalities to be assessed.
Manus says that the department also hosted a number of municipal water quality information sessions in August to reiterate the requirements for the next assessments.

Great emphasis was placed on the need for a water safety plan, since this would be a more effective way of managing drinking water quality.

The UK-based Drinking Water Inspectorate availed the services of Dr Annabelle May, who attended all the sessions and gave a special lecture on water safety plans and how these are being implemented in the UK.

“This is an indication of the realisation and agreement of what is required by this new regulatory approach, which goes beyond reactive monitoring and focuses more on proactive risk management,” avers Manus.

The City of Tshwane says that one of the stumbling blocks in the Blue Drop environment is the lack of preventive maintenance as well as proper monitoring of the operations and distribution network.

The city calls for networking within the water community to serve as an aid, a knowledge base and mentoring of water treatment works personnel and for other personnel that require skills.

“A holistic approach to water quality from catchment to consumer will significantly improve our water quality, in general – and this is where the Blue Drop system will help munici-palities to prioritise their funding and skills”.

Herold points out that many of the larger metropolitan areas do not purify their potable water. Large water boards such as Rand Water deliver this service.

“This may skew the results since the more onerous task of purifying the water also rests with many of the smaller municipalities, which have the least capacity to do so.”

Fair comparisons of performance are further confounded by the quality of the raw water that has to be treated. Rand Water has it easy since virtually its entire supply comes from the Vaal dam.

North West Water and Sedibeng have a much more difficult task since they have to make do with the polluted water returned by Rand Water customers. Similarly, Brits faces even worse obstacles owing to the severe eutrophication of the Hartbeespoort dam.
Blue Drop accreditation is a crucial measure of the end product. Green Drop provides an equally essential measure of the effluent discharged. But the quality of the water in the rivers and dams linking the two must not be overlooked.

It is, thus, common cause that Blue Drop is a positive development, but possibly not adequate on its own.

What is not in doubt, though, is that South Africa’s economic growth prospects will be imperilled unless greater urgency is shown and more openness and transparency are introduced on the quality-management front.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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