25 February 2009

SA water safe but of bad quality

The safety of SA drinking water is under scrutiny, with some claiming tap water in some towns is unsafe to drink, while others say it's safe to drink, although the quality is poor.

Water officials appear to be at odds over the safety of our drinking water. This comes after a senior department of water affairs official said that tap water in some small towns is not fit for consumption.

Speaking at the Implementing Environmental Water Allocations (IEWA) conference in Port Elizabeth, deputy director-general national water resources and infrastructure, Cornelius Ruiters, said there was only an 80% chance that small-town tap water was safe.

"Some of the places where we have challenges are in the Free State, in Limpopo, and to some extent in the Eastern Cape - and here and there in the North West and Mpumalanga," he said. "I would say that at the moment there's about an 80% chance that most of the water in the small towns is still drinkable.

"Obviously it would be advisable to know which smaller towns, and then to find out what is in the smaller towns, and obviously SA Tourism and such people have to provide this sort of information."

'Water not up to standard but is safe'
However, the department of water affairs and forestry said that South Africa's water might not always be up to standard, but it is safe to drink. "The department acknowledges that the water might at times not meet the required technical standard, according to our management systems (electronic water quality management and drinking water quality regulation)," it said in a statement.

"However, we must clarify that this in no way means the water in these towns is not safe for human consumption." Sometimes, only one of 14 samples from a water source failed to meet the standards, said the department's manager of drinking water quality regulation Leonardo Manus. This did not mean the entire town was affected, he said.

Where a sample failed and the determinant for this did not have a health impact, the water would also not be rendered unsafe, he added. The department said drinking water quality management was municipalities' responsibility. The department had an oversight and regulatory role on the quality of tap water.

"We have implemented a country-wide system to assist with the overall management of drinking water quality," it said in the statement. "On average 3 000 samples are taken nationwide from water supply systems, and the latest results indicate that on average 94% of the analyses complied with the health aspects of the national standard for drinking water quality. Our monthly reporting indicates that 98% of all samples taken comply with the health aspects as listed in SANS 241: 2006."

SANS refers to the SA National Standard of drinking water.

What's being done about it
The department said it had started an incentive-based, regulation programme under which it awarded excellent drinking water quality management in different towns.

"A secondary objective is also to allow the general public to be adequately and responsibly informed on the regulator's confidence levels in drinking water quality management levels per service system (town/city)."

First assessments in all nine provinces had been completed and final audits and assessments had begun for the inaugural public report in May 2009, it said, and noted that the national standard compared well with the World Health Organisation's limits, which had been adopted as standards for the European Union and other developed countries.

Water in metropolitan areas safe
Meanwhile, Ruiters said his department was looking at posting the names of towns where water quality was sub-standard on its website, but could not say when this might be done.

The department monitored water quality in 97% of South Africa's municipalities, he said. Questioned on the issue, Water Research Commission director for water-linked ecosystems, Steve Mitchell, said people had nothing to fear in the country's major metropolitan areas.

"South African standards for tap water are among the best in the world. The big city councils are delivering water at that quality because they have the technology and the capacity to manage that technology," he said. "But as you get away from [the major cities] then the quality of drinking tap water that has not been boiled becomes a bit more risky because - particularly [in the region] around the border with Zimbabwe, where we've got the cholera coming in - there is a danger of picking up disease.

"Then [also] below sewage works - urban waste water treatment works - which are not being operated effectively, there is also a risk there that there might be diseases in the water. So that water should be boiled before being drunk," Mitchell said.

Asked if he would drink the tap water in a small town, Mitchell replied: "I would like to know what's been happening in the river first."

The IEWA conference is being held in the city over the next four days. The event has attracted over 300 experts, academics and officials from 30 countries. – (Sapa, February 2009)

Read more:
Water quality report shocks


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