Dept to launch turnaround initiatives as SA’s water quality, wastewater plants deteriorate

19th January 2024 By: Natasha Odendaal - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

As South Africa’s water quality and wastewater facilities deteriorate and nonrevenue water increases, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is embarking on various initiatives to arrest the downward trend in water services.

The latest full Blue and No Drop reports, released by the DWS in December, indicate a decline in drinking water quality and an increase in nonrevenue water since the last reports were issued in 2014, while the Green Drop Progress Assessment Report indicates a deterioration in the performance of municipal wastewater treatment systems.

The full Blue Drop Report, assessing the quality of South Africa’s drinking water, shows that, of the 958 water supply systems (WSSes) in each of the 144 water services 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.

“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,” says DWS director-general Dr Sean Phillips.

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.

Further, of the 151 systems physically assessed, 3% were found to be in a critical infrastructural condition, 12% in a poor infrastructural condition, 49% in an average infrastructural condition, 31% in good condition, and 5% in an excellent condition.

The No Drop Report reveals that, of the total volume of water treated for municipal use, estimated at 4.4-billion cubic metres a year, nearly half (47%), at 2.1-billion cubic metres a year, is estimated to be nonrevenue water.

This is a significant increase on the 35% reported in the 2015 No Drop Report. The international average for nonrevenue water is 30%.

The Green Drop Progress Assessment, meanwhile, shows that 64% of wastewater treatment works (WWTWs) are at high or critical risk of discharging partially treated or untreated water into rivers and the environment.

The number of WWTWs in the high- and critical-risk categories have both increased since 2013, with 32% and 34% in the critical- risk and high-risk categories respectively in the 2023 update of the Green Drop Assessment.

The overall deterioration is a result of nonadherence to standard operating processes for drinking water and wastewater treatment.

Infrastructure deemed to be in poor condition or lacks maintenance is caused by municipalities not hiring the necessary staff with the correct qualifications, non-prioritisation of budgets for maintenance and operations by municipal councils, weak billing and revenue collection, and poor municipal leadership and management, says Phillips.

Further, there is no legal requirement for municipalities to use revenues from the sale of water and from sanitation charges to fund the maintenance and operation of water and sanitation infrastructure.

Vandalism and theft of the metal components of infrastructure are also an increasing cause of infrastructure failure, partly a result of inadequate security being provided by municipalities.

“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,” adds Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu.

The DWS is working collaboratively with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (Cogta), the Municipal Infrastructure Agency, the Department of Human Settlements and the National Treasury to provide support to the worst performing municipalities, including allocating infrastructure grants worth more than R20-billion a year to municipalities, providing technical and engineering support and assistance, capacity building and training and financial management advice and support.

Mchunu and Water and Sanitation Deputy Ministers spend most of their time crisscrossing South Africa, visiting those municipalities with severe challenges with water and sanitation services, and the DWS and water boards are supporting many of the municipalities to implement corrective action and improvement plans agreed to by the DWS and municipal leadership.

The DWS has sent noncompliance letters to the municipalities with systems which scored poorly or badly in terms of drinking water quality in the 2023 Blue Drop Report, requiring the municipalities to inform their residents should they still have poor or bad compliance, Phillips continues.

During the audit period, 14 WSAs did not report water quality data – or provide any other evidence that they have been testing their water quality – to the DWS, with noncompliance notices also issued to those municipalities, instructing them to issue advisory notices to their residents that their water might not be safe to drink if it has not been properly tested.

“Some of these WSAs indicated that they are in the process of appointing laboratories, others commenced with sampling, and others provided evidence of testing and achieving drinking water quality, and where necessary these WSAs did issue advisory notices,” Phillips comments.

While the department is committed to working with municipalities, there are limitations to government’s support and interventions, as some municipalities do not respond to directives, do not follow advice or do not accept support, Mchunu points out.

National government cannot make decisions to prioritise maintenance and operation funding on behalf of municipalities, nor can national government hire staff on behalf of municipalities. The municipal leadership must prioritise the filling of key technical positions with appropriately skilled staff and budget for this from revenue.

The DWS and Cogta are repeatedly providing municipalities with grants to repair infrastructure, which is not maintained by the municipalities and thereby deteriorates again rapidly, with funding required to be provided again, Phillips comments.

Fundamental reform is required to arrest and turn around the decline in municipal water and sanitation services.