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South Africa is expecting an important visitor on its shores soon, in the form of the UN special rapporteur on toxics and human rights, Marcos Orellana. He is an international human rights law expert, and will examine the country’s position on toxics and human rights as per an October 2020 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) that mandates him to research the “implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes.”

Among the issues Orellana will come across when he arrives in July is, without a doubt, the atrocious state of government’s water management systems across South Africa’s municipalities and water boards, and the impact of this on the communities they serve.

Between the current cholera outbreak originating from, among others, the Rooiwal water treatment plant in Hammanskraal – which to date has infections across five provinces and has left a death toll of over 20 in its wake – and the revelations of the Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS) latest water systems assessment reports, the country has a miserable case of mismanagement to worry about.

The ripple effect of this is that many communities in the country are potentially receiving a supply of water that is decidedly below the best international standard from their municipalities, or even worse, are in the dark about the quality of their water simply because their municipalities are not testing it as required by law. This applies to both water from treatment plants that goes on to supply residents, and that which passes through wastewater treatment works back to natural sources.

Fittingly, Orellana’s visit is preceded by a call for inputs from the office of the UN human rights commissioner. The special rapporteur will also oversee a report feeding back to the UNHRC that reflects his findings and recommendations at a later stage. See this post for more details on the visit, and how you can contribute to the special rapporteur;s work in South Africa.

Cholera in Hammanskraal

The community of Hammanskraal in the City of Tshwane may be a good place for the UN to start its probe into the human impact of bad governance in a basic service such as water. To date, authorities have not yet identified the source of the cholera that broke out in the area, where 24 of the 26 deaths so far recorded in the country, have taken place.

Hammanskraal is serviced by the Temba and Rooiwal treatment plants, but it is the latter that has come under scrutiny over the past few weeks, since the deaths. The plant has been due for an upgrade for years, with community and civil society organisations calling for urgent intervention on behalf of residents who have for years raised alarms over the bad quality of their water.

Ordinary people pay the price for tender irregularities

But more recently, allegations of tender irregularities have surfaced, signalling trouble for the much needed refurbishment. Following the outbreak, it has also emerged through media reports that companies contracted to do phase one of the over R2-billion upgrade are linked to controversial state capture accused businessman Edwin Sodi, who is currently on trial for an unrelated matter in the Free State. Sodi was allegedly awarded a contract to the value of R295-million for the Rooiwal upgrade, despite not being competent to carry out this kind of work.

Five city officials are currently under investigation for their part in the award, while the Special Investigating Unit is also probing the matter.    

A councillor for ActionSA in Tshwane, Thabang Sebotsane, is quoted on IOL as having recently told Newzroom Afrika: “What brought this contract to our attention is the fact that this contractor [Sodi] had failed in one contract that was afforded to him by the government in another province and we really got shocked that while he was still in court over the failure of his previous contract, the City awarded him a contract of this nature and magnitude.

“The contractor didn’t just lack the capacity, he also didn’t have the money to commence this contract… the City paid for site establishment, this is one of that (sic) contraventions of the City’s supply chain management… About R71-million was an upfront fee because he lacked resources.”

Following the outbreak, the City of Tshwane has allocated funds to the tune of R450-million to address the urgent infrastructure upgrade issues at Rooiwal. Together with the DSW, the City will approach National Treasury for funding. Minister of DWS Senzo Mchunu says he is optimistic that with the funding that has so far been unlocked, at least 50% of the problems at Rooiwal will be addressed.

Drop reports findings

The situation at Rooiwal, however, represents a small part of the challenges with which the DWS is gripped, as the state of governance of the water management landscape across the country is dire. The department released its latest Green Drop, Blue Drop, and No Drop reports on Tuesday 6 June, describing them as a “uniquely South African regulatory tool” to “improve municipal drinking water quality, wastewater management, as well as water conservation and demand management.”

The reports keep the public and stakeholders informed and updated with credible data and information about the state of water and sanitation services in the country, the department gushed in a media statement. “The reports also recognise water services institutions that achieve compliance and excellence in providing such services. This serves as an incentive for water services institutions to improve their performance.”

Each document focuses on a different aspect of the water management cycle: Green Drop assesses the wastewater management system, while Blue Drop looks into the drinking water system, and No Drop assesses municipalities’ efficiency in supplying water to residents. 

The reports, therefore, assess the quality of the water we drink, the infrastructure that facilitates its supply, and the authorities tasked with governing the systems that accomplish this.

For each report, a full assessment is released every two years, and an interim report is released in the alternate year. The 2023 Green Drop report is an interim one, as the full version was released in 2022. In the case of the Blue Drop report, the DWS will release a full report in July that follows on last year’s interim version. The same will apply for the No Drop report, the full version of which will be released in September.

The new reports paint an ugly picture.

Although they differ in theme and focus, collectively they clearly show the deterioration of standards required for water treatment to be deemed safe. There is also a serious case for non-compliance with both global and country standards for the treatment of water.

Between 2014 and 2020, the DWS did not release the drop reports, and no governance or oversight tool was available publicly to make South Africans aware of the quality of the country’s water. It was only after Mchunu’s appointment in 2021 that the tradition of releasing the reports returned, and what the latest versions show is that the standards of management of the water systems across the country have dropped significantly.

Municipalities failing to provide safe water

Despite the efforts of the DWS in issuing non-compliance notices to 90 municipalities following the 2022 Blue Drop assessment, it only received action plans meant to address shortcomings from half of these. As many as 43 declared that they were not capacitated to carry out the work of developing their own action plans, and thus sought the help of the DWS.

The 90 errant municipalities are in charge of a total of 334 wastewater management systems that were deemed to be in a critical condition at the time. “At the end of March 2023, only 34 of the 168 plans submitted to the department were being implemented, with the balance being in planning phase or no progress reported,” reports the department.

In respect of the Blue Drop assessment, 151 out of 1035 water treatment systems in the country were sampled, and 3% of these were found to be in a critical infrastructural condition, while the state of another 12% was classified as poor. About half (49%) were found to be in an average infrastructural condition, a further 31% in a good infrastructural condition, and a mere 5% in an excellent infrastructural condition.

The standards for water quality are set by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS), which in turn is guided by global standards set by the World Health Organisation, which requires that 97% of tests for microbiological contaminants and chemical compliance conducted over a year should comply with water quality standards, for the water to be considered safe to drink. Treated water is required by law to meet drinking water standards set by the SABS in South African National Standard (SANS) 241. In terms of this standard, municipalities are required to monitor the microbiological and chemical quality of the water provided to residents at specified intervals, including hourly, daily, weekly, fortnightly and monthly tests of various types.

Microbiological compliance measures how well the treatment process is removing harmful bacteria and other micro-organisms from the water, while chemical compliance measures the chemical suitability of the water for human consumption, and protection of infrastructure and household equipment.

According to the DWS, water quality tests carried out by municipalities during the 2021/22 municipal financial year were assessed and rated as follows:

  • Less than 95% of tests met the SANS 241 standards and were classified as bad.
  • Between 95 and 97% of tests were classified as poor.
  • Between 97 and 99% of tests were classified as good.
  • More than 99% of tests were classified as excellent.

Eleven municipalities did not only fail to report water quality records to the DWS, but also could not prove that they were indeed conducting regular tests. Under such circumstances, residents are none the wiser in terms of the quality of the water in their taps. Should the quality of the water at any of these municipalities be found to pose a health risk, and the residents who live in these areas are not notified, the municipalities would be in contravention of the Water Services Act.

A further concern for the DWS is the significant increase over the years in the number of municipalities whose water was found to be in the poor category of standards. According to the department, only 10% of assessed municipalities fell in that category back in 2012, compared to 50% in the current period. This means the rate at which water quality is declining across a larger number of municipalities is a cause for alarm.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has weighed in on the issues in the water sector, acknowledging that the bad governance has implications on the lives of residents, as evidenced in the Hammanskraal case. He notes in a May newsletter: “Disease outbreaks such as the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal are made far worse in situations of poor governance, weak management and poor maintenance of infrastructure. We have responsibility – and are determined – to remedy those shortcomings in a sustainable way and as a matter of urgency.”