Water quality: Is there anything to be worried about?

The truth about the state of our water supply.

Alec Hogg from Moneyweb interviews Helgard Muller from the Department of Water Affairs.

ALEC HOGG: It’s Wednesday October 20 2010 and in this special report we speak with Helgard Muller, who is the chief director of the Department of Water Affairs. Your department has come under quite a lot of public scrutiny recently, not least because it appears as though the 850 municipal sewerage plants are under…are creaking if not under strain. Perhaps you could give us an indication from your side, whether the reports have been exaggerated or whether we really have a problem.

HELGARD MULLER: Alec, yes of course South Africa does face water quality challenges in certain hotspot areas of our rivers and also in many waste water treatment works but to say that it’s a national problem and especially the one report that says 80% of our waters will be polluted in the next five years. Another report that says no food crops can be irrigated. We certainly believe it’s taking the issue way too far.

ALEC HOGG: Let’s maybe start with the second of those, the food crops; there was a report in Business Day newspaper this week that farmers are complaining that the water that they’re taking out of rivers is now polluted. The E. coli count is terribly high in the Vaal River at Parys was the example used. What is the situation?

HELGARD MULLER: The fact of the matter is that faecal colliform such as E coli counts are internationally used as a test to indicated bacterial pathogens in water. Most rivers flow through areas with human activity, it’s quite common to have E coli counts; moderate counts in most of the rivers. Let me also say that drinking water if purified up to our required national standards, which is a SANS 241, it must be totally free of E coli but to expect such a zero standard from any raw water such as river water is outrageous. Some lobby group said water discharge from sewerage works must be totally fit for human consumption, which I think is nowhere else in the world a requirement.

ALEC HOGG: So what is the situation? Is the water safe then that is being drawn out of our rivers?

HELGARD MULLER: Let me again repeat, we do acknowledge that some of our rivers face serious problems. We as a department are equally concerned about a number of wastewater treatment works and that’s why we’ve embarked on this

green drops certification programme. We’ve published the reports because we want the public and the industry and the commercial sector to know what is the status and we are taking steps against such municipalities. We are currently busy with the second, another audit of a report that we will issue early next year. To do audits on a number of, we’re trying to cover most of the wastewater treatment works.

ALEC HOGG: Before we talk more detail and I’d like to do that on the green drops, just to finish off with the rivers. These reports that the farmers are complaining that their crops are being, their produce are being rejected by retailers like Woolworths, is that an area of concern for you?

HELGARD MULLER: It is a concern but we had no…what we’d like to say is that we’d like to constructively engage with institutions like AgriSA and we’ve started a partnership with them to engage on these issues. I listened on the Afrikaans programme yesterday afternoon, where Transvaal Landou Unie, Louis Meintjies was talking and Johannes Möller of AgriSA. Now, we like constructive engagement and we are taking the issue forward with AgriSA to see what can we do on such partnerships. I can also say that, let me emphasise we prefer partnerships and positive engagement and one of the positive results of such engagements is already evident in the Berg River where we’re concerned about waste water treatment works owned and operated by municipalities. We have forced them as a regulator to adapt risk reduction plans and implement such plans and these plans are already showing positive results.

ALEC HOGG: Let’s talk then about your green drop report card, what are the criteria that you introduced there?

HELGARD MULLER: Yes, you see both the blue drop and the green drop we don’t only measure the standard of the effluent. Like in a blue drop we don’t only measure the quality of the drinking water as such, we look at a total system. For example, take the drinking water quality, the blue drop, it’s not only a sample at the treatment works but also are the municipality doing proper sampling throughout the system, at consumers’s houses. Do they have plans in place to do with a disaster and breakages in the system, do they have risk plans, do they have sufficient operators. So if there’s a low score in terms of either blue drop or green drop it also shows that we are looking at a number of indicators not only just the quality. So, it’s a comprehensive audit.

ALEC HOGG: But only 7.5% of 850 municipality plants actually got passed, if you like, according to the green drop report card. That seems a terribly low number.

HELGARD MULLER: It is a low number and we said in the report that we are really concerned but remember the blue drop or the green drop are really those that pass with distinction. I think we should look at, what we call here, a 50% pass, 50% was fine and below 50% was not fine, which is indeed a worrying factor and that’s why we as a department are strengthening our role as regulator. We’ve issued directives against a number of municipalities. We’ve also even started court cases against some municipalities that totally ignore our directives and still polluting.

ALEC HOGG: Are those municipalities or the people, who live in those areas, have they been informed that perhaps the water is not safe to drink?

HELGARD MULLER: You see Alec, that’s again what…we mustn’t confuse river water quality and drinking water quality. When people talk in the one sentence say there’s pollution in the river and the next say you can’t drink the tap water. We want the public to be fully informed and we’ve published these reports as public documents. It’s also available on our webpage www.dwaf.org.za and there’s a link to “My Water” which each and every municipal is listed and any member of the public can go to that website and see what is the status of the drinking water quality.

ALEC HOGG: There’s an enormous amount of transparency there. We’ve seen just this week, the Democratic Alliance, the official opposition kicking up a hornet’s nest about some of the municipalities in the Free State. Again, is this politics and exaggeration or is there room for concern?

HELGARD MULLER: There are indeed concerns. I think there are concerns around many municipalities. We must also understand this phase in the development of our country. Came ’94 a lot of money was put into providing new houses, giving people access to services, connecting new houses and the other houses without services to both the water networks and the sewerage networks without corresponding upgrading or enlargement of both water works and sewerage treatment works. Now we are faced that these facilities are either too small or being run inefficiently. That is a major focus area for us as a country to go forward in future.

ALEC HOGG: Is it realistic for a country like South Africa to be able to maintain the standards where you can open a tap anywhere in the country and be comfortable that the drinking water you have is safe?

HELGARD MULLER: We believe it’s a requirement because many poor people can’t afford bottled water. So, we certainly see it is indeed a must. We can’t compromise on drinking water quality. Some people have said have we dropped our standards, will we drop our standards, I can just say that myself and a colleague of mine have been recently invited to a meeting of the World Health Organisation, a meeting of drinking water quality regulators and they believe what we are doing is, for a developing country, is extremely good and right there amongst world class standards.

ALEC HOGG: The point that you made a moment ago about the infrastructure creaking, about lots of new houses coming on board since 1994, lots of new demands on the system, does that not require an urgent investment in capital or re-capitalising our whole municipal sewerage plant system?

HELGARD MULLER: Yes Alec, you are quite correct, there is indeed a major challenge there and a major capital need. It’s also sometimes not only capital, it’s also how to keep systems going. Both the capital investment as well as the ongoing operations of systems.

ALEC HOGG: So, it’s all a question of getting the municipalities to first of all run them efficiently and if required then to upgrade?

HELGARD MULLER: Yes, to get them…there are talks underway in government departments on different ways to do it. There are other options as well maybe…I think the private sector and water boards have got a great role to play there, where the municipality clearly hasn’t got the capacity. Involve another institution or a private company to do the operation maintenance on their behalf.

ALEC HOGG: So, if you were to sum it all up, there has been increasing attention on water around the world and as well in South Africa as a country that is not as well-endowed with water as one might have hoped. Are we facing a crisis or are we facing a situation where it is difficult but it can be overcome?

HELGARD MULLER: Definitely the latter one Alec. We will also always face challenges because we are a water scarce country. We’ve got enough water, we must just manage it very carefully and it will always place a high demand on all of us, to both manage and use it effectively to avert a crisis.

ALEC HOGG: But within your department, we hear of government departments with many vacancies, are you suffering from the same situation?

HELGARD MULLER: I think many departments do suffer, we’re trying our best to overcome that but it is overall a challenge I think.

ALEC HOGG: But you are functioning?

HELGARD MULLER: We are still functioning yes, we’re trying our best. The plans are in place and we’re acutely aware of these challenges and we would like to work with other partners and both private sector as well as other institutions to address this challenge and we’d like people to come forward and institutions also with proposals. Our unique circumstances demand new initiatives, new plans and also to be constructive when we engage about these issues. I think it will not help South Africa with scare tactics and meaningless point scoring on matters of national importance. Rather work together and come with positive solutions

ALEC HOGG: And you’ve mentioned scare tactics, is a lot of the media reports, in your opinion, no more than scare tactics at the moment?

HELGARD MULLER: Yes, the one for example that said that within five years Gauteng will run out of water, 80% of the river water will be so polluted there will be no technology available that can treat it. Any water in the world can be treated, the technologies are there, South Africa has got the expertise, has got the companies both in public and private sector to do it.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, South Africa is faced with a water crisis. The government has made huge progress in housing but have neglected existing infrastructure as well as adequate planning for the future. Our treatment plants simply cannot cope with the volumes and very little has been done to add more plants. Many new housing estates have to rely on conservancy tanks as the local infrastructure cannot take further waste water.

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