Waning perceptions of drinking water quality underline need for urgent intervention

9th February 2024 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

Waning perceptions of drinking water quality  underline need for urgent intervention

While the majority of South Africans perceive their water to be safe to drink, their confidence in water services and quality has been deteriorating over the last decade, a water services barometer study has revealed.

The 2022 water services barometer study, undertaken by the Water Research Commission (WRC), in collaboration with the South African Local Government Association (Salga), is the third such perception study, following previous studies in 2011 and 2015, to establish users’ perceptions of the current provision of water services in South African municipalities.

“The study afforded the opportunity to track consumer perceptions as they developed over time, gain insights into water service quality and establish a national baseline for customer satisfaction with water and sanitation services and the tariffs that municipalities charge for these services,” says WRC executive manager Jay Bhagwan.

The study, published in December 2023, showed that, while 88% of consumers believed their water was safe or very safe to drink in 2015, only 79% of urban South Africans and only 64% of rural South Africans had the same confidence in 2022.

In 2011, 81% of urban South Africans believed their tap water was safe or very safe to drink.

The barometer, which canvassed the views of 3 302 households, including 738 rural households, which were included for the first time, further found that up to 50% of the respondents treat their municipal water by boiling or filtering it before consumption, while 8% indicated that they drink only bottled water.

In 2011, 75% of consumers drank only tap water without boiling, filtering or cleaning it first.

These perceptions are in line with the results of the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS’s) latest water quality reports, but the views on the safety of tap water in the WRC study are driven by other factors, such as the appearance of the water, taste and odour.

The study also confirmed that the personal experience of people getting ill is a major driver of perceptions of water safety. In 2022, 65% of consumers in metros and other urban areas were positive that tap water is safe to drink because “nobody got sick”.

“The Blue Drop status of municipalities remains very low on the list of drivers of perceptions. Only 4% of consumers in metropolitans and other urban areas gave ‘our municipality has a Blue Drop’ as a reason for their perception that tap water is safe to drink,” Bhagwan says.

However, the dip in confidence does follow the Blue Drop report performance, Bhagwan tells Engineering News & Mining Weekly, noting that, while not part of the study, an overlay of the Blue Drop and Green Drop assessments over the years shows a parallel, and the lack of performance of municipalities contributes to growing concerns and a user satisfaction that was not full of confidence.

The limited confidence of rural consumers is also highlighted in the DWS reports, with the rural areas “much worse off” with regard to water quality and service than urban areas.

The DWS’s latest Blue Drop report, published in December, revealed that there had been a decline in drinking water quality since the previous report was issued in 2014.

Of the 958 water supply systems (WSSes) in each of the 144 water service authorities (WSAs) across South Africa, 277, or 29% of systems located in 62 WSAs, are in a critical state of performance, a deterioration from the 174 WSSes in 33 WSAs that were found to be in a critical state in 2014.

At a national level, the drinking water quality of 46% of the country’s 958 water supply systems does not comply with microbiological standards and that of 44% does not comply with chemical standards for safe human consumption.

“Based on water quality tests carried out by municipalities themselves during the 2021/22 municipal financial year, 54% of WSSes achieved excellent or good microbiological water quality compliance and 46% achieved poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance,” said DWS director- general Dr Sean Phillips said during a water summit in January.

In 2014, 5% of WSSes achieved poor or bad microbiological water quality compliance.

In terms of chemical water quality compliance, 76% of systems achieved excellent or good, while 24% of systems were unacceptable, compared with 15% in 2014.

“From my calculation and estimates and from a water quality perspective, there is no safer water than water that is treated properly at a municipal level,” Bhagwan comments.

However, in recent years, the water sector in South Africa – particularly municipalities – has faced numerous challenges.

“These issues have caused great concern among the public, particularly regarding the growing percentage of drinking water systems failing to meet both national and international compliance standards as revealed by these assessments,” says Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu.

When the reports, which initially started in 2008, showed a decline in performance, the assessments were dropped in 2014, he says.

“It is exactly at that point where our transparency was lost. Providing thorough assessment of the services is a powerful incentive to improve performance. Government cannot improve its services if it is not frank and realistic about the state of its services.”

Bhagwan says that the barometer results provide the WRC, Salga and municipalities with insight into the level of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction with water services in South Africa and the drivers of customers’ perceptions of the quality of water services.

He adds the Minister’s discussions on the transformation of the water services, including concepts such as independent water producers and compulsory licensing of water service providers, besides others, are all new radical measures that indicate that the industry can be turned around with good, strong regulation and legal processes.

Following a water summit in January, Mchunu assured the DWS will be working extensively with Salga, the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), water boards and the private sector to improve water services and ensure that municipalities deliver on their mandates.

“We remain committed to ensuring that WSAs provide our people with access to safe drinking water and protect them from the real risk of waterborne diseases. Action plans have been developed to address the key findings in the worst performing municipalities.”

The summit focused on finding collaborative and innovative ways to improve critical, poor and average performing WSAs and how to maintain the good standards of the good performing ones.

“It is all about change. The summit itself was called to change the narrative that we have had so far in South Africa about how we perform in terms of the quality of water that we supply,” says Mchunu, assuring that the DWS will offer comprehensive and collaborative support to underperforming WSAs, mayors and municipalities.

However, WSAs should make fundamental changes in the manner in which they deliver water and sanitation services, including the separation of the WSA from water service provision, to allow for greater accountability and efficiency.

The DWS is directing municipalities that do not already have separate water service providers to appoint one, establish their own entities or create special-purpose vehicles as water service providers.

In addition, with much emphasis on performance, another focus area participants resolved on is the specifics in terms of the qualifications required and the filling of posts by a competent person, as well as a review of implementing agents, with an emphasis on capacity building.

Accordingly, the directors-general of the DWS and Cogta, as well as Salga and provincial and local government, will collaborate to strengthen the capacity of implementing agents to enable the water sector to be better equipped to deliver on its mandate and meet the needs of the public.

Water and Sanitation Deputy Minister David Mahlobo also announced recommendations and a way forward on finance, security and corruption.

A major recommendation is the strengthening of the budget for water and sanitation services, including reviewing budget allocations to ensure that more funds are allocated towards the provision of these services to the public.

He further emphasises the importance of infrastructure security in ensuring uninterrupted water services and urged all municipalities to develop and execute reliable infrastructure security plans, which should include the use of technology such as remote fencing and a rapid response system to combat theft and vandalism of infrastructure.

These measures will not only protect vital water infrastructure but also ensure a reliable supply of water.

“In our resolutions were built-in consequences,” warns Mchunu.

Should they not perform, one option for the DWS, in collaboration with the financial departments and local government, is a review of what steps to take, including whether the water and sanitation grants should continue or be channelled elsewhere.

“The name of the game here is improved service. We are certainty not going to freely give grants repeatedly without any conditions. We think that it will be irresponsible of us just to continue [without] any change in terms of improvement to a WSA,” he says.

Meanwhile, the WRC’s water barometer study found that interruptions in water supply have increased since the 2015 survey, when 82% of consumers in metropolitans and other urban areas said that they seldom (less than once a month), or never, experienced interruptions in their water supply. By 2022, this had decreased to 67%.

“On a positive note, the survey indicated that South Africans are becoming more aware of the scarcity of water,” says Bhagwan, noting that, in 2022, 86% of consumers, compared with 79% in 2015, mentioned that they actively save water, by not leaving taps running, fixing leaks, showering instead of bathing and generally using as little water as possible, besides other measures.

Despite this, he notes a need to bring about more awareness, involvement and engagement in the water sector and instil changes in behaviour towards water use, scarcity and security.

Phillips, speaking at a water summit in January, said that South Africa’s average litres per capita use is 218, with Gauteng registering the highest at 279 ℓ/d, which is one of the reasons demand exceeds supply and supply disruptions occur. The Western Cape registered the lowest rate, at 164 ℓ/d per capita.