Don’t mess with water!


By Zel-Marí Gelderblom

The water crisis in our country is no longer just speculation and turnwater may be our foreland.

Issues of water shortages, pollution of rivers, raw sewage in streets, E. coli in the sea and reservoirs that are empty are the order of the day. Sewage plants are also poorly managed, which leads to the complete decay of this infrastructure. Not to mention the corruption in the water industry.

Over the festive season, residents of Rustenburg once again complained about brown water coming from their taps – water which, according to Magalies Water, appears to be safe for human consumption. But the question remains: Will you drink brown water? Apart from the unattractive color of the water, the water purification plant in Rustenburg has been under construction since 2017, which – as Netwerk24 reports – causes a daily water shortage of around 50 million liters in this area.

Residents of Kimberley were without water for weeks in 2023. However, it seemed that the Northern Cape Department of Water and Sanitation was not too bothered about the life-threatening blue-green algae that was also found in the Vaal River.

AfriForum was of the opinion that the Sol Plaatje Local Municipality violated the residents’ constitutional right of access to water in 2023, because it does not meet the minimum standards of water supply services.

Last year there was even a cholera outbreak in Gauteng and the Free State, and 23 people died in Hammanskraal due to cholera. After this outbreak, AfriForum stepped in and tested the water quality right across the country to warn residents about the water quality in their areas. Water samples were taken at the same time by AfriForum and Save Ngwathe in the Vaal River outside Parys, which also tested positive for cholera.

In 2023, Parys was also without water for 34 days, despite the fact that this town lies on the banks of the perennial Vaal River – a primary water source. The water must simply be purified and supplied to the community, but this is exactly where the problem lies: Due to municipal incompetence and unwillingness, the water purification works are in a terrible state and cannot meet the demand.

These problems did not arise until recently. Already in 2018, AfriForum took water samples from the Blesbokspruit in the Nigel area, which showed that the water contained faecal coliforms, E. colicontained nitrates and phosphates whose concentration was higher than the set standards.

In Machadodorp last year there was also a water shortage after a water pump was sent for repairs without feedback on when this pump would be repaired again. AfriForum also delivered 15,000 liters of water to the community in Waterval Boven after residents had no water for about a week due to problems with the water infrastructure.

At one stage, beaches such as Warner and Winkelspruit were closed, as well as two of the 11 swimming beaches in the eThekwini metro, due to high levels of E. coli. The beach in Amanzimtoti is also closed from time to time due to raw sewage being dumped into the sea.

South Africa is on the brink of a serious water crisis – especially with regard to untreated sewage waste water. Of 140 sewage wastewater treatment works tested in 2023, the outflow of only 19% of these met the minimum standards. This means that in an alarming 81% of cases, the water that such works dump into rivers has been inadequately treated.

However, before we get discouraged: There is hope. All citizens have the right to clean and safe water, and although local governments fail to manage this precious resource responsibly, AfriForum will continue to test the drinking water every year in towns where the organization has established branches. This is how the organization ensures that residents have access to clean and safe water. AfriForum also continuously launches actions to ensure that people’s basic rights are respected and water resources are protected.

AfriForum also launched a #CleanWater project and branches were mobilized nationwide to test the drinking and sewage water quality in towns where AfriForum branches are active. The quality of South Africa’s drinking water (blue drop) and sewage water (green drop) is tested and the results published in our blue and green drop report. This report is published annually to publish reliable information about the quality of South Africa’s drinking and sewage water.

AfriForum is forced to fill the void that was left after the department of water and sanitation did not publish any official blue-and-green drop reports for almost a decade. Although the department resumed the official blue and green drop project in 2022, AfriForum still fulfills an important watchdog function through which pressure is applied to this department and municipalities to call these institutions to account.

Water supply is undoubtedly a major problem in many parts of the country. However, it remains our duty to highlight and report these issues, put pressure on the government and – most importantly – get involved with local organizations such as AfriForum, which make a difference at grassroots level.

  • Zel-Marí Gelderblom is coordinator of content and media relations at AfriForum and has a master’s degree (cum laude) in gender politics at Nelson Mandela University.