New study finds South Africans losing confidence in water services

7th December 2023

By: Natasha Odendaal

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor


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A new survey undertaken by the Water Research Commission (WRC), in collaboration with the South African Local Government Association (Salga), has found that South Africans’ confidence in water services – and water quality – is waning.

The latest water services barometer study reveals that up to 50% of the respondents indicated that they treat their municipal water by boiling or filtering before consumption, while 8% indicated that they drink only bottled water.

While 88% of consumers believed their water was safe to drink in 2015, only 79% of urban South Africans and 64% of rural South Africans had the same confidence in 2022.

The 2022 study, obtaining the views of 3 302 households, including 738 rural households, which were included for the first time, found that consumers in smaller urban areas are considerably less confident about the safety of tap water than they were in 2015.

In four provinces, the percentage of consumers who believe their tap water is very safe, or safe, to drink fell to below 60%.

The 2022 water services barometer study is the third such perception study, following previous studies in 2011 and 2015, undertaken by the two organisations to establish users’ perceptions of the current provision of water services in South African municipalities.

“The study afforded the opportunity to track consumer perceptions as they developed over time, gain insights into water service quality and establish a national baseline for customer satisfaction with water and sanitation services and the tariffs that municipalities charge for these services,” said WRC executive manager Jay Bhagwan.

“The study can, therefore, be regarded as a barometer of trends in water services in South Africa over the past 10 years from the perspective of the consumer. The results provide the WRC, Salga and municipalities insight into the level of customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction with water services in South Africa and the drivers of customers' perceptions of the quality of water services.”

South Africans’ risk perception of the quality of their drinking water is based on a combination of factors, mostly guided by the appearance of the water, taste and odour.

“The Blue Drop status of municipalities remains very low on the list of drivers of perceptions. Only 4% of consumers in metropolitans and other urban areas gave ‘Our municipality has a Blue Drop’ as a reason for their perception that tap water is safe to drink,” said Bhagwan.

Earlier this week, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) published its latest Blue and No Drop reports, which revealed that there had been a decline in drinking water quality and an increase in nonrevenue water since the last reports were issued in 2014. Similarly, the DWS’s Green Drop Progress report indicated a deterioration in the performance of municipal wastewater treatment systems.

At a national level, the drinking water quality of 46% of the country’s 958 water supply systems does not comply with microbiological standards and 44% does not comply with chemical standards for safe human consumption.

Meanwhile, interruptions in water supply have increased markedly since the 2015 survey, when 82% of consumers in metropolitans and other urban areas said that they seldom (less than once a month), or never, experienced interruptions in their water supply. By 2022, this had decreased to 67%.

Between 2015 and 2022, the reliability of water supply declined distinctively in the Northern Cape (38% less reliable) and the Free State (33%), according to the perceptions of consumers in metropolitans and other urban areas.

The survey found that 23% of urban consumers in Limpopo said that they experience water interruptions at least once a week, while a further 22% said that they experienced interruptions at least once a day.

“On the positive note, the survey indicated that South Africans are becoming more aware of the scarcity of water,” said Bhagwan, noting that in 2022, 86% of consumers, compared with 79% in 2015, mentioned that they actively save water.

They did this by not leaving taps running, fixing leaks, showering instead of bathing and generally using as little water as possible, besides other measures.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter



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