Nearly half of the water supplied by municipalities fails quality tests

Nearly half of the water supplied by municipalities fails quality tests

Blue Drop, Green Drop and No Drop reports show how municipalities fail, fail, fail to meet compliance standards.

Image: GroundUp

The Blue Drop, Green Drop and No Drop reports released today (Tuesday 5 December) by the Department of Water and Sanitation show a deterioration in quality controls across the country.

While Minister Senzo Mchunu seems reluctant to call the water situation a crisis, WaterCAN believes it is indeed a crisis.

“There is an overall deterioration in meeting standards,” says Dr Ferrial Adam, WaterCAN Manager.

WaterCAN is an initiative of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA).

“How is this not a crisis? It’s a complete crisis: 46% of drinking systems don’t comply with microbiological standards, 67.6% of wastewater treatment works are failing and 47.4% of our water is lost or unaccounted for,” says Adam.

“If 46% of municipalities are not complying with drinking water standards, that means you should not drink the water from those systems without boiling it. Why have we not seen more notices warning consumers to boil water before drinking? Are they not letting people know that the water is contaminated? Surely that is a crime?”

The Blue Drop report also raises concern about the lack of transparency over water quality: “The majority of municipalities (57%) do not notify water users in the event of water quality being compromised or not monitored, implying low confidence by water users in the quality of water in their taps,” says the report.

A total of 30% of municipalities in seven provinces scored less than 10% in the Green Drop and/or Blue Drop assessments.

While the reports bring bad news, WaterCAN applauds the Department of Water and Sanitation for delivering these reports. Although the reports illustrate the state of the crisis, it is better to have clear, reliable information as an indication of where we stand and a baseline for improvement.

WaterCAN welcomes the department’s promises in the reports to take action against municipalities to improve systems. We call for the department to keep the public up to date on such actions.

The reports are the Blue Drop Report 2023 (the first full Blue Drop report in years, following the release of the progress report last year), the Green Drop Progress Report 2023 (following the previous release of the full report) and the No Drop Report 2023 (following the previous release of a watch report).

“There is substantial room for improvement,” says Adam. “We want to see those in charge of the failed systems held to account, and clear and consistent corrective action applied.”


The Blue Drop Report

This is the report on South Africa’s potable water supplies, from abstraction to water treatment plants to the customers. Systems were assessed for the year ending June 2022.

All 144 Water System Authorities (WSAs) participated in the survey, including the seven bulk water service providers (the water boards), covering 958 water systems and 1015 water treatment works.

This report shows a regression from 2014 (the last full report).

The report shows that not a single province achieved 80% in a single key performance area (see table below).



Most areas showed a decline since the 2014 report (see table below).


The report shows an increase in systems in a critical state from 174 systems in 2014 to 277 systems in this report. Those in excellent state decreased from 44 systems to 26 systems.


Almost half of the drinking water is unacceptable, failing to meet microbiological standards (see diagram below). “The water in these systems pose a serious acute health risk to the community. Failure to produce water that meets microbiological compliance standards can be linked back to poor operations, defective infrastructure, inadequate dosing rates, absence of disinfection chemicals, lack of monitoring, lack of operating and chemistry knowledge, and several other root causes,” said the Blue Drop report.

The report estimates that R4.694 billion is required every year to maintain the water supply assets, which is 15% of their estimated value of R217.34 billion. The report says the actual spending of 27% on operations and maintenance “appears to be more than adequate”. If this money is indeed being spent, WaterCAN questions the effectiveness of the spending, given the ongoing reports from across the country of failed water systems which leave communities desperate for reliable water provision.


The water use efficiency (based on system input volumes, population and average daily consumption) was poor (see below), with Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal showing the worst inefficiencies.


A total of 26 water supply systems were awarded Blue Drop Certification.

However, WaterCAN questions these certifications, as the City of Johannesburg was awarded this certification, with a Blue Drop score of 98.1%.

“Johannesburg has water cuts, water shedding and unmanaged leaks. They should not be given an award. Why are we applauding mediocrity?” says Adam.

WaterCAN believes that the City of Joburg high score may be attributed to the inclusion of the water board Rand Water, which manages the bulk distribution in Gauteng, and which performs better than the City.

The Blue Drop report notes that it will have to include monitoring and quantification of water shedding and dry taps in future reports. It also noted significant problems of theft and vandalism of infrastructure, with few water service institutions having effective anti-vandalism strategies.


The Green Drop Report

This report assesses the state of the wastewater treatment works (WWTWs), carried out across 144 water services authorities with 867 WWTWs.

The report finds that 67.6% of WWTWs are in the high- and critical-risk categories.

The report found that 25% of WWTWs were operating within their hydraulic capacity (at 50% to 100% of capacity), but 9% were operating above capacity with 3% operating above 150% of capacity, which means they are unable to treat effluent to acceptable levels. Half of the WWTWs do not have flow meter readings to verify the operational capacity. Pump and pipeline failures mean that not all wastewater even reaches the WWTWs.

Shockingly, only 15% of WWTWs comply with microbiological limits (requiring at least 90% compliance). “The remaining 85% of WWTWs do not meet microbiological limits and this indicates the effluent from these WWTWs present a serious health risk to downstream users due to the presence of pathogenic bacteria in the effluent,” says the report.

Only 10% of WWTWs meet chemical standards.

Lack of staff, particularly skilled staff, is a problem, with 43% of WWTWs not having any maintenance teams in place.

This is an indictment on the management of these WWTWs, showing a shocking lack of concern for the health of communities which are downstream of those plants.


The No Drop Report

This report focuses on water losses and non-revenue water (NRW).

Nearly half of South Africa’s treated water – 47.4% – is NRW.

“This means we are paying to store, treat and distribute water that is lost,” says Adam.

NRW is treated water that is bought or produced by the municipality for which the municipality gets no revenue. This is caused by physical losses (water leaks), poorly functioning or non-existent water meters, illegal connections and poor billing and revenue collection. It does not include free basic water, as that is accounted for elsewhere. NRW causes significant losses, as infrastructure such as dams and water treatment plants is built to capture and process it, but no revenue is collected.

The department’s Director-General Dr Sean Phillips noted that high levels of NRW, including physical losses, in Gauteng and KZN are one of the reasons for water supply disruptions.

A total of 144 water services authorities were asked for data but 24 failed to submit anything. Only four of them scored 90% or above, qualifying for No Drop Certification. A total of 65 scored below 50%.


More information

A soundclip with comment by WaterCAN Manager Dr Ferrial Adam is here.

The Department of Water and Sanitation reports are here.


About WaterCAN:
WaterCAN is a dedicated environmental organisation committed to preserving and protecting South Africa’s water resources. With a mission to promote responsible water management and raise awareness about water quality, the organisation empowers communities to become proactive stewards of their local water sources. If you would like to support our work, kindly Donate Here.

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