Jun 2023 2nd edition

Our immediate priority is to end cholera outbreak and ensure safe water for all

Cholera OutbreakRecent outbreaks of cholera in Hammanskraal in Gauteng and in the Free State have shown the vital importance of safe and effective water and waste water management.

The deaths of people in Gauteng and the Free State are deeply tragic. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have lost their loved ones. Hundreds more people have been hospitalised following the outbreak.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and international relief organisations warned that after years of steady decline, cholera has made ‘a devastating comeback’, putting over a billion people in 43 countries at risk.

According to the WHO, 24 countries have had reported cases since the beginning of the year, including in parts of Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Authorities are to be commended for their efforts to speedily assist all those affected, including setting up a field hospital in Kanana in Hammanskraal, providing additional water tanking services to residents and going into communities to raise awareness about proper hygiene.

An investigation is underway into the source of the outbreak. Technical teams from the City of Tshwane, the Department of Water and Sanitation, and the provincial and national departments of Health are carrying out water quality tests at distribution points and at water treatment works in the area.

They are also tracking and tracing infections. To date, the original source of the cholera infection has not been located. However, this waterborne disease is highly transmissible in conditions where there is inadequate access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

Unreliable and poor-quality drinking water has been a problem in Hammanskraal for many years. The Rooiwal waste water treatment works, which is upstream of Hammanskraal, has not been well-maintained and has insufficient capacity to deal with the volume of waste water entering the works. 

Over the years, in its role as the regulator of the water sector, the Department of Water and Sanitation has issued many directives to the City of Tshwane to address pollution from the Rooiwal Wastewater Treatment works. Regrettably, these directives were not acted upon. Consequently, the Department initiated legal action to force the City to use its grant from national government to refurbish and upgrade the waste water treatment works.

While there must be full accountability for the failings that have resulted in the outbreak in Hammanskraal, at this time we must focus on the problem at hand. We must stop the spread of cholera and take remedial measures to safeguard human health.

Generally, water quality in South Africa is of a high standard, which, according to our Water Research Commission, “compares well with the best in the world”. It is important to note that the dual water systems supplied by Magalies and Rand Water to the Tshwane area meet national standards.

After it was abandoned nearly a decade ago, government reinstituted the Blue and Green Drop programmes to help improve national water quality and to assist municipalities with compliance. This formed part of Operation Vulindlela, a collaboration between the Presidency, National Treasury and government departments to fast-track economic reforms.

The most recent Green Drop Report shows there has been a steady decline in the quality of water and sanitation services in municipalities. Poor governance, ineffective management, increasing debt and underspending on public infrastructure like wastewater treatment plans have all contributed to poor water quality.

Under these circumstances, the fact that many councils underspend critical infrastructure grants is unacceptable.

Across the country, the Department of Water and Sanitation is working with municipal managers and technical teams to ensure local councils use their water infrastructure grants effectively. Support is being provided, among others, to water infrastructure projects like the Nooitgedacht water transfer treatment scheme in Nelson Mandela Bay, the Greater Mbizana Regional Bulk Water Scheme in the Alfred Nzo District Municipality, and a number of projects in Maluti-a-Phofung in the Free State and Emfuleni and Midvaal Local Municipalities.

National government and Umgeni Water are helping eThekwini metro to improve the management of its waste water treatment systems. Similarly, the Drakenstein municipality in the Western Cape and the Lekwa municipality in Mpumalanga are being helped to address waste water treatment system challenges.

As announced in the State of the Nation Address in February, government is proceeding with a number of significant projects to improve our national bulk water resource infrastructure. Last week, I was in Lesotho to mark the start of construction of the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which will supply water to Gauteng and its surrounding areas.

As we wait for the results of the investigation into the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, it is critical that local government authorities continue to work closely with national government to address and overcome the immediate challenges with water quality in Hammanskraal.

It is encouraging that the City of Tshwane and the Department of Water and Sanitation are working together to ensure the various water supply systems meet drinking quality standards.

Quality water and sanitation is fundamental to the dignity of every South African.

I have therefore asked the Minister of Water and Sanitation to make recommendations to strengthen the governance, management and regulatory framework for municipal water and sanitation services. This includes ensuring that national minimum norms and standards are comprehensive, adequately monitored and adhered to by all water service providers.

Disease outbreaks such as the cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal are made far worse in situations of poor governance, weak management and poor maintenance of infrastructure. We have responsibility – and are determined – to remedy those shortcomings in a sustainable way and as a matter of urgency.

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