Regular protests by residents demanding adequate water supply proves that many South Africans are subjected to interrupted and inadequate safe drinking water supply, says Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality director and Rhodes University professor Tally Palmer, who tells Engineering News that water-shedding has been a reality for many South Africans in recent years.
She cites a research project conducted by the university over the past four years, which demonstrates the prevalence of interrupted water supply in South Africa. The report, which was funded by water research funding organisation the Water Research Commission and the South African–Netherlands Programme for Alternatives in Development, used the Sundays River Valley municipality, in the Eastern Cape, as a case study.
The project investigated the community’s violent protests against inadequate water supply from the municipality. “We found that the area is not short of water, as an interbasin transfer scheme ensures reliable water supply for the irrigation of a thriving citrus export industry. Irrigation water is, therefore, efficiently supplied by the Lower Sundays River Water Use Association (L-WUA),” explains Palmer.
The research, part of it conducted by Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality and Rhodes University master’s student Lara Molony, further revealed that 63% to 80% of residents living in the residential area of Nomathamsanqa, which is part of the Sundays River Valley municipality, perceived their primary water source to be unsafe and of poor quality, while more than 70% of households were subjected to water cuts between one and three times a week.
Having spearheaded the study, Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality and Rhodes University academic Dr Jai Clifford-Holmes used a range of research approaches, including soft systems dynamics modelling, to track water- related institutional arrangements and governance in the Sundays River Valley municipality.
Clifford-Holmes researched South Africa’s water-related legislation and found that the law is sound, but complicated, with provisions for water supply including the National Water Act’s prioritising of water for basic human needs (25 ℓ/d per person) and the Water Services Act’s providing for free basic water (6 Kℓ/m per household).
He also found that a compulsory national standards guideline requires any water-services authority to ensure that when water services are interrupted for more than 24 hours, consumers must have access to alternative water services comprising at least 10 ℓ/d per person of potable emergency water.
The research project shows that it is possible for a municipality to budget for a household water tanks subsidy, such as indoor tanks with a capacity to hold 100 ℓ to 200 ℓ, says Palmer, adding that the municipality could ensure that these are filled regularly by tankers, enabling the municipality to meet its emergency water-supply obligation. “It would certainly be worthwhile for government to apply this in all municipalities.”
She adds, however, that this did not happen at the Sundays River Valley municipality because of multiple problems including that the ageing water infrastructure is used beyond capacity, there were only just enough storage facilities in town to hold water delivered by the L-WUA and that, if water was not efficiently ordered and stored in town, supply ran out and pumps were damaged.
Palmer says the critical contributions of the Sundays River Valley local municipality research project are threefold. Firstly, the study found that the supply of emergency water could reduce the risk of civil unrest and contribute to human health and wellbeing. Secondly, unravelling institutional arrangements could clarify who is responsible for specific water provision duties and, thirdly, facilitated interventions could help municipalities, service providers and citizens ensure water supply, which would assist in building trust.Palmer adds that
the study indicated two actions that government needs to prioritise. In the short term, there needs to be an immediate national focus on providing emergency water for households that are at risk of being subjected to water cuts for more than 24 hours. In the longer term, local governments need to institute gover-nance reform and map their institutional and governance arrangement for water supply, water treatment and wastewater treatment.