Tap water may pass water testing, but concerns about quality of raw water sources
WaterCAN and activist citizen scientists’ tests reveals regular water testing is imperative
Tap water may be safe to drink in some urban areas, but raw water sources such as streams, rivers and dams have high levels of E. Coli and coliform bacteria. This is the finding from a recent water testing week by Water Community Action Network (WaterCAN), an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). WaterCAN conducted a water testing week (#WhatAmIDrinking) from 14-18 September with the help of volunteers in various places countrywide.
“The conclusion derived from the results is that our tap water, while healthy in most urban areas, needs more people to test smaller towns and rural areas. The electricity crisis has affected pumping of water at reservoirs, and this could result in water being contaminated – which means that regular testing is becoming even more imperative,” said Dr Ferrial Adam, manager of WaterCAN.
Approximately 80 Activist citizen scientists tested tap water and raw water sources in 8 of the 9 provinces: Gauteng, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, North West and Western Cape. The parameters selected are key to the South African National Standard (SANS) 241 that provides drinking water specification and stipulates the minimum requirements for potable water. The kit tests chemical and bacterial parameters that includes nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, pH, hardness, alkalinity, chlorine, a test that provides a combine assessment of metals such as copper, lead, cadmium and mercury, total coliform screen and an E. Coli test.
The results from tap water tests indicate that the chemical parameters were all in line with the acceptable limits and the water can therefore be regarded as safe for drinking. However, with regards to the bacterial parameters of tap water, there were 4 tests (out of 37) that had a presence of total coliform bacteria, of which the one in Winburg, Free State, was high enough to raise concern with the municipality.
At least 76% of the tests on raw water sources – dams, rivers and streams – reflect high levels of E. Coli and coliform in the water. This presents a serious health risk. Various samples from raw water sources presented with high levels of hardness, alkalinity and phosphates. However, there is no pattern and therefore it must be monitored regularly. The levels of contamination are due to the lack of maintenance at water treatment facilities, the lack of laboratory facilities to test water regularly in line with regulatory requirements and the lack of proper treatment of highly contaminated raw water.
“The results, while not surprising, given the Green Drop and Blue Drop reports of 2022, are a major concern, as this is where drinking water is abstracted from to serve communities, and in places where participants are dependent on the direct water source for drinking and cooking, the water quality poses a direct health risk,” Dr Adam added.
This first round of testing has prompted WaterCAN to demand that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) hold municipal managers accountable for polluting raw water sources. Municipalities must also test water regularly and make the results available to the public.
“It is time for people to better monitor our water, since the government is clearly failing to do so. We want to thank the volunteers for taking time out and committing to testing our water. This could not have been done without each and every one of the participants. This is only the beginning of our path to monitor and track the quality of our water supplies from taps, rivers and boreholes. As WaterCAN, we want to expand this project so that we have thousands of people regularly testing our water. And where there are concerns, we need to act fast and use our activism to hold those responsible accountable,” concluded Dr Adam.
A copy of the report can be found here.
A voice note from Dr Ferrial Adam here.