South Africa

South Africa may have no safe drinking water in less than a decade

South Africa could have no safe drinking water in less than a decade and as soon as five years if the country’s water infrastructure continues to deteriorate at its current rate. 

This is feedback from water scientist Dr Ferrial Adam, executive manager of WaterCAN, which is part of the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA). 

Adam told Biznews the recently released Blue Drop Report from the Department of Water and Sanitation showed that 46% of the country’s water is undrinkable. 

This water, supplied by water boards and municipalities, is unsafe for humans as it contains high levels of bacteria. 

“This is a crisis. People have to work with urgency and do everything in their power to make sure things change,” she said. 

Over the last decade, the proportion of unsafe drinking water has skyrocketed from only 5% of water supply in 2014 to 46%. 

If this trend continues, South Africa may have close to no safe drinking water in the next ten years. Dr Adam thinks this could happen even sooner. 

“If we carry on like this, I do not even think we will have to wait ten years – it will be about five years before we have no safe drinking water.”

She said this is entirely possible as with complex systems, such as a country’s water supply, things will often hit a tipping point the decline will be accelerated. 

The rapid increase in unsafe drinking water has been caused by a lack of maintenance and investment in the country’s wastewater treatment plants. 

The Green Drop Report, which tracks the performance of South Africa’s wastewater treatment plants, showed that at least 67% of them are unable to operate properly, while some are not operational at all. 

South Africa produces around 7 billion litres of wastewater a day, and if this is not treated properly, it results in large amounts of untreated wastewater being expelled into the country’s river systems, increasing the bacteria present in key water catchment areas. 

Fellow water scientist, Dr Anthony Turton, placed the blame for this squarely on institutional failure at the municipal level. 

“Let the facts speak for themselves. The ANC has been in power for over a quarter of a century. The population has doubled, so what have they done about upgrading infrastructure? To blame something else is disingenuous,” Turton said. 

“The simple fact of the matter is that your infrastructure has deteriorated, and your institutions have failed. That is the important thing. Institutional failure is far more significant than ageing infrastructure.”

Turton said that this could be turned around with sufficient political will. 

“I would almost say we are at an inflexion point in our history. The forthcoming elections are going to play a considerable role in deciding whether South Africa is going to continue to sink like the Titanic or slowly recover.”


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