Concerned with a cholera threat from its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe, South Africa could be overlooking a creeping water crisis of its own, as ageing infrastructure and rising demand spew potentially deadly bacteria into its water systems.
[Although] access to water has increased dramatically [since the end of apartheid in 1994], backlogs persist: in 2008, about 5 million people were still in need of adequate supplies, while three times more – 15 million people – lacked basic sanitation.
[...] South Africa’s tap water is among the best in the world, according to [Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF] spokesperson Linda Page. But with millions still lacking access to flush toilets and piped water, the threat of waterborne diseases cannot be ignored, she said.
In 2008, half of the municipal water supplies surveyed in Western Cape Province, on the country’s south coast, had high levels of the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria, according to a study released by the provincial DWAF.
[...] Municipalities across the country have blamed poor water quality on a lack of resources and capacity that has put far too much strain on ageing water treatment plants. In 2004 South Africa had just 15,000 civil engineers, with the bulk in the private sector and only 11 percent working for local government.
[...] Every year thousands of tourists flock to the towns that dot the banks of the Vaal [River] [...] but in December , when the extent of the [water] pollution became known, the town lost about US$180,000 a week in cancellations.
Local wildlife is also struggling to cope with the environmental impact. Recently, court-ordered contractors removed 20 tonnes of dead fish after a local NGO, Save the Vaal River Environment (SAVE), took the local Emfuleni municipality to court for leaking millions of litres of raw sewage into the river.
[...] In its defence, Emfuleni municipality – well aware of its failing pumps and ageing infrastructure – argues that it lacks the finances and capacity to correct the situation.
While [admitting] there are backlogs in the provision of drinking water and sanitation, and that mistakes have been made, [Dr Roman Tandlich, a lecturer at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Rhodes University] stresses the complex environment in which post-apartheid service provision operates.
For instance, standard sanitation systems are problematic in townships, and systems based on ventilated pit latrines, where an additional ventilation shaft is dug alongside the main hole to reduce odour and the presence of flies and mosquitoes, are being explored.
Studies from Ghana have shown that extremely high levels of government subsidy are needed to fund conventional sewage systems, while ventilated pit latrines have proven to be a cost-effective alternative.
[...] DWAF’s Page said funds have been put aside to address problems in infrastructure, as well as the issues of budget management and skills shortages.
Source: IRIN, 04 Feb 2009