Karoo towns fail to keep water clean

The Kannaland municipality also does not conduct all the water tests it is supposed to

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This is the town hall in Ladismith, part of the Kannaland municipality. Archive photo: Steve Kretzmann

  • Even in what is listed as the best run province in the country, 15 out of 25 municipalities in the Western Cape fail to provide clean drinking water consistently.
  • The situation has become worse over the past five years.
  • Kannaland municipality has consistently been the province’s worst municipality when it comes to drinking water quality.
  • The latest Blue Drop Report, which evaluates drinking water quality nationwide, was supposed to be published in July, but is still not available.

A 100% clean audit across all Western Cape Government departments was announced this week, and the province’s municipalities scored highest in an independent report by Ratings Afrika. But despite being seen as the best run province in the country, 18 of the Western Cape’s 25 municipalities fail to consistently deliver clean drinking water, according to publicly available data from the national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

The situation has deteriorated over the last five years when 14 of the municipalities failed to provide drinking water that met minimum quality standards. The worst offender, since 2018, is the Little Karoo municipality of Kannaland.

Kannaland municipality, which includes the towns of Ladismith, Zoar, Calitzdorp and Van Wyksdorp, is governed by the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (ICOSA). The ICOSA has never had an outright majority, and has mainly been in coalition with the ANC since 2011. For a while in 2018 the ANC and DA formed a coalition to squeeze ICOSA into a minority of the seven-seat council.

This municipality not only fails to consistently provide clean water, it is not even testing the water for a range of health indicators.

The municipality also failed to respond to our questions for this article.

Water health indicators

There are six indicators for the quality of drinking water supplied by the municipality that are supposed to be regularly analysed. The results must be uploaded to the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) Integrated Regulatory Information System (IRIS).

The Kannaland municipality only analyses one of the indicators – for microbiological contamination – that has a direct impact on human health. The “Acute Health: microbiological” indicator measures faecal bacteria such as E. coli in the water. Faecal bacteria occur naturally in the gut but when ingested can be fatal in young children and people with compromised immune systems.

The amount of E. coli, measured in colony forming units (cfu) or coliforms, should be undetectable in a 100ml sample of drinking water, and the total number of coliforms of all faecal bacteria should be less than ten. The Kannaland municipality has met this quality requirement in only 75% of its samples this year. It is supposed to meet the criteria at least 97% of the time, according to the DWS.

But the 75% figure for faecal bacteria is an average across Kannaland’s four municipal drinking water distribution systems in Ladismith, Zoar, Calitzdorp and Van Wyksdorp. While the water treatment works at Ladismith meets the microbiological criteria 99.9% of the time (putting it in the “excellent” range for this indicator), Kannaland municiplaity has only met the minimum standard for faecal bacteria in the town of Zoar 53% of the time this year. The Calitzdorp water treatment works has met the microbiological standard 70% of the time, with an 88% success rate at the Van Wyksdorp water treatment works.

No testing for other health indicators

In terms of faecal bacteria in the water, Kannaland is listed as “bad”. It does not even test for the other two health indicators, which are for chemicals with acute (short term, or immediate) health impacts, and chemicals with chronic (long term) health impacts. It also doesn’t test for aesthetic (colour and smell), operational, or disinfectant indicators.

The DWS site reflects the percentage for all these five indicators as zero. Confirmation that no testing (which is mandatory) is done can be seen on the DWS National Water Services Knowledge System.

The DWS data on drinking water quality goes back to 2018, and reflects a deterioration over the past five years. The municipality as a whole achieved 94% for microbiological indicators in 2018, although this still falls into DWS’s ‘bad’ bracket of below 95%. None of the other health related tests were reported for the last five years.

Boil before use

“The drinking water is bad,” said Enrico Hardien, who runs a confectionery business in Zoar.

He said that during summer the water became so discoloured that it resembled a cup of coffee. “No-one drinks that, unless maybe you boil it first.”

Often there was no water in the taps toward the end of summer.

Although he also worked in the health sector, he said he didn’t see “hundreds of cases of diarrhoea” as one might expect, but added that because the water had been untrustworthy for so many years, people were very responsible about boiling it first.

He said there was an environmental expert appointed by the provincial government to consult with the municipality. “I saw him last year at a community meeting. He said they were going to start working on the water purification.”

Questions about efforts to improve water quality were sent to the Premier’s office, but no response was forthcoming before publication.

Blue Drop assessment

Despite the DWS system showing no analyses for chemical compliance, the Blue Drop Watch Report 2023, which investigated 151 of South Africa’s 1,186 water supply systems, investigated the Ladismith water supply system and determined chemical compliance was greater than 99.9%. But it noted microbiological compliance at 92.3% was below the minimum threshold and posed “a significant risk for community health”.

As the Blue Drop Watch Report, released 6 June, is an interim report, a “technical perspective” ahead of the full Blue Drop Report, according to DWS minister Senzo Mchunu, it did not investigate the water supply for Calitzdorp, Zoar or Van Wyksdorp.

Mchunu, in his foreword to the Blue Drop Watch Report, stated the full Blue Drop Report would be released in “mid-July” this year. It has yet to be released.

DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa said a Western Cape inter-departmental task team has been meeting with the Kannaland municipality and monitoring water quality on a quarterly basis, with the latest meeting having taken place on Monday.

Mavase said Kannaland was not compliant with legislation as it did not analyse and report indicators other than that for microbiological contamination. He said the provincial government seconded a chief engineer to Kannaland for four months, and although engineers from the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA) Municipal Infrastructure Support Agency (MISA) were assisting, it was not sustainable if there was “no assistance within the municipality”.

He said DWS met with senior municipal management in April and alerted them to the fact that they had no qualified process controllers, and warned DWS funding would be cut if this was not attended to.

DWS has since put measures in place to manage Kannaland’s water and sanitation operations and provide an action plan to be tabled at the task team meetings.

Correction on 2023-10-11 10:36

The original story stated the provincial government received the highest rating in an independent report by Ratings Afrika. This has been corrected to: The province's municipalities scored highest in an independent report by Ratings Afrika.

TOPICS:  Local government Water

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