Saturday, June 22, 2024

South Africa: Scientists Sound Alarm On Failing Water Systems

All four towns that have recorded cholera deaths this year have failing drinking water supply and failing sewage treatment plants

  • At least 32 people have died of cholera – a preventable and treatable disease – this year.
  • The water in more than half the water supply systems examined for the Department of Water and Sanitation’s latest Blue Drop Watch Report is unfit to drink.
  • While water in the taps is dirty or simply not available, sewage runs in the streets of towns where cholera has led to death.
  • A group of senior scientists warn of a national health and environmental emergency.

A deadly combination of sewage pollution in streets and rivers, and dirty drinking water – or no water – in the taps is common to all four areas where people have died of cholera in the last two months.

In Hammanskraal the cholera epidemic has claimed the lives of 29 people, according to health department spokesperson Foster Mohale. The Free State towns of Parys and Kroonstad, and Phake in Mpumalanga have each reported one death attributed to cholera. These are likely underestimates of the actual cholera deaths.

The water supply systems in Hammanskraal, Parys and Phake are among the failing systems inspected by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) for its Blue Drop Watch Report released on 6 June. The drinking water in these towns is contaminated by faecal bacteria such as E.coli.

The bacterium which causes cholera, Vibrio cholerae, is also transmitted by faecal contamination of water and food.

The Blue Drop Watch Report provides a technical overview of the country’s drinking water supply, ahead of the full Blue Drop Report 2023 expected to be published in July. Of the 1,186 water supply systems in South Africa, the watch report assessed 151. Of these 77 are failing, including those supplying drinking water to Hammanskraal, Parys and Phake. The Kroonstad water supply system is not included in the report, but information on the DWS Integrated Regulatory Information System (IRIS) which is used as a database informing the Blue Drop Report, shows the Kroonstad system is also failing.

Scientists warn of looming health emergency

The cholera deaths in Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga are symptomatic of a widespread collapse of water and sanitation infrastructure. Immediate action needs to be taken by authorities. This is the warning from a group of 15 senior academic experts forming South Africa’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).

On 6 June, the same day DWS released the Blue Drop Watch Report, SAGE released its Strategic Advisory on Wastewater Management in South Africa. In it the scientists state that if left unchecked, the “unfolding collapse” of water treatment works countrywide “could precipitate multiple concurrent health and environmental emergencies”.

SAGE listed 17 actions that need to be taken to reverse the country’s present and looming health crisis due to polluted drinking water.

Among the recommendations are that the Blue Drop Report – an evaluation of water supply systems throughout the country – be published annually. The last Blue Drop report was published in 2014. Most of the other recommendations are technical and legislative in nature, and include amending the Water Services Act to empower DWS to take over technical functions and revenue collection of failing water suppliers, such as municipalities and water boards, as provided for in Section 139 of the Constitution.

In October last year, then DWS spokesperson Ratau Sputnik told GroundUp that unlike legislation covering, for example, wastewater polluting the environment, there was no such provision related to drinking water. Sputnik said that the only way the DWS minister could currently intervene was by invoking Section 139 of the Constitution.

Questions sent to DWS asking whether any legislative review of the Water Services Act was underway, or whether the DWS had intervened through a Section 139 process received no response.

Impact of failing sewage treatment on drinking water

In Hammanskraal, the Temba water treatment work supplies the area. It extracts raw water from the Leeukraal Dam fed by the Apies River.

But upstream, the Apies River receives what is supposed to be treated sewage from two large sewage treatment plants – Rooiwal East and Rooiwal North. These two sewage plants, which DWS data shows have so far this year almost completely failed to reduce the number of faecal bacteria in received sewage, together release 200-million litres of effluent into the Apies River per day.

Rooiwal East’s microbiological compliance – when the amount of faecal bacteria in effluent released into the river is not above 1,000 colony forming units per 100ml – is just 5% over the last 12 months. Rooiwal North, the larger of the two with a capacity of 150-million litres a day, reflects 0% microbiological compliance. Minimum compliance to be considered “good” for sewage effluent is 70%.

The DWS has stated that pollution of the Apies River by the Rooiwal sewage treatment plants is the most likely cause of the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal.

In its statement on plans to set up a water purification package plant managed by Magalies Water, the DWS stated that the pollution of the Leeukraal dam was so bad that the Temba water treatment works was not able to treat the raw water to acceptable drinking water standards.

The Blue Drop Watch Report notes that the Temba water treatment works distributes water with a microbiological compliance of 85% against a minimum compliance level of 95%. It also fails the chemical compliance, achieving just 80% against a minimum 95%.

Tshwane mayoral spokesperson Sipho Stuurman said the source of the cholera in Hammanskraal has not yet been detected, and referred to a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) report of 1 June stating no cholera was detected in any of Tshwane’s water supply systems.

The report notes “an environmental strain of Vibrio cholerae was detected” in water from the Leeukraal dam prior to treatment at Temba water treatment works, although this strain “does not carry the genes that code for cholera toxin and therefore cannot cause epidemic cholera. This strain is not the cause of the current outbreak”.

But epidemiologist and Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Stellenbosch University’s Department of Global Health Dr Jo Barnes said they’re looking in the wrong places.

Barnes said other than the raw water in Leeukraal dam, the CSIR tested water in supply systems that had already been treated.

She said they needed to test “environmental water”, such as in the sewage running down the streets in the area. It also needed to be considered that people were collecting water from water tankers and there was a potential chain of contamination from the bucket filled at the water tanker to the water being scooped into a pot in the home. People had to walk through sewage-contaminated streets and the cholera bacteria could easily be walked into people homes, and water standing in a bucket could become contaminated.

Also, she said trying to find how the first cholera bacterium got into Hammanskraal was a red herring when the problem was sewage pollution and a failing drinking water supply system.


In Parys, where there has been one reported death due to cholera, the water supply system run by the Ngwathe Local Municipality scored nil for microbiological and chemical compliance in the Blue Drop Watch Report. The report notes this indicates no water quality testing data was supplied to the DWS regulatory system, as it is mandated to do.

But in parts of town, particularly Parys’s township, there had been no water in the taps for two years or more, according to the principal of Phehellang Secondary School, Dimakotso Maloyi.

Maloyi said township residents collected water from people in town who had boreholes, or from institutions with boreholes, such as the Phehellang Secondary.

She said the municipality did not even supply water via water trucks, and there had been more than one violent protest over water provision so far this year.

She said she saw that some of the most poverty-stricken residents collected water for domestic use from the Vaal River, which is known to be highly polluted by sewage from Emfuleni, and from Parys’s own sewage treatment plant.

The DWS regulatory system shows the sewage treatment works has 0% microbiological and 0% chemical compliance over the last 12 months. With not even the basic water quality tests taking place. Achieving a Green Drop 2022 score of just 7%, it is a critically failing sewage plant, releasing up to 4.7-million litres of untreated sewage into the Vaal River per day.

The Green Drop Report stated: “Zero monitoring of water quality is performed, very little flow records are available, and several spillages are evident due to overflowing manholes and poorly maintained pump stations.” It noted the failure of sewage treatment works in the Ngwathe Local Municipality had “disastrous consequences for the environment and end-users”.


A 73-year-old woman from Phakwe, a small town in the north west corner of Mpumalanga has reportedly died of cholera.

Some of the streets in Phakwe have sewage running down them due to overflows from blocked sewer lines, and the water in the taps is often dirty, said business owner Tumisang Mosima.