Unreliability of municipal drinking water supplies

An unreliable drinking water supply has tremendous economic, social and health related consequences for the country and its people.


By: Helgard Muller

We take a look at proven statistics that show how the growing unreliability of municipal drinking water supplies are crippling the population

I hope by the time you read this in January 2016 the terrible drought strangling large parts of the country would have been broken – but now here in November 2015, whilst writing this column, we are in the midst of a terrible heat wave and every day newspapers are carrying articles on the water crisis and showing dramatic pictures of barren soil and dry taps. But has the reliability of municipal drinking water supplies being properly measured?

The South African cabinet has actually set a target for reliable water supplies by 2019, stated as response to a question in Parliament by COPE leader, Mosiuoa Lekota (Parliamentary question no 401). In spite of the cabinet’s undertaking, it is clear from the harsh reality in many South African towns, that reliability is going the wrong way and actually sliding backwards.

StatsSA is measuring this reliability of municipal supply in their annual General Household Survey (GHS) and the following has been extracted from the 2014 GHS as was published in May 2015:

“The functionality of municipal water supply services measures the extent to which households that received water from a municipality had reported, over the 12 months before the survey, interruptions that lasted more than two days at a time, or more than 15 days in total during the whole period... Households in Mpumalanga (63,1%) and Limpopo (61,4%) consistently reported the most interruptions, while Gauteng (8,2%) and Western Cape (3%) experienced the least interruptions. More than one-quarter (25,7%) of South African households reported some dysfunctional service with their water supply in 2014. Since 2010, the percentage of households that had reported interruptions increased strongly in the Free State and North West.”

This StatsSA survey (StatSA, 2014) therefore shows that in provinces such as Mpumalanga and Limpopo, every two out of three households have regular interruptions in supply whilst for South Africa, on average, one out of every four households have regular interruptions in water supply.

Such unreliable water supply systems may be good news to some plumbers as I can already see many wealthier consumers and businesses installing their own backup system of plastic storage tanks and pumps that can fill up when there is water and pump directly into the building during interruptions. Drilling operators will have a very lucrative business as more and more consumers move to independent water supplies. But what about the poor?

A recent visit to Moloto in Mpumalanga was an eye opener and typical of many in South Africa – a story of development on the one hand as tin shacks have been replaced with nice brick and tile houses built by the owners themselves. But also degrading on the other hand as the municipal water network now have the standpipes mostly dry. The more entrepreneurial inhabitants have installed plastic tanks which they fill up when there is water or have it filled by tanker trucks from water vendors. The poorest people who cannot afford to buy a tank must now buy water of unknown quality from those neighbours who have tanks at a going rate of R2 for 20?. For a household of six people to buy their minimum basic volume of 6k? per month will amount to R600 – a substantial expenditure for a poor family and a far cry from the government’s free basic water policy for poor people.

This worrying unreliability trend is increasing every year and the next GHS report for 2015 would be a very interesting read when published by StatsSA in May 2016. I do hope that government will soon realise that an unreliable drinking water supply has tremendous economic, social and health related consequences for the country and its people.