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.
When apartheid crumbled in 1994, an estimated 14 million South Africans lacked access to a formal water supply, and about half the country - 21 million people - had no formal sanitation, according to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF).
Since then, access to water has increased dramatically, but 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.
The quality of municipal drinking water is monitored monthly, with nearly all municipalities reporting an acceptable standard of water. However, outdated infrastructure and problems in retaining skilled staff have contributed to what DWAF admits are unacceptably high levels of pollution in some rivers and dams.
South Africa's tap water is among the best in the world, according to 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.
In impoverished districts like Ukhahlamba, in neighbouring Eastern Cape Province, the problem is even more extreme. In 2008, Ukhahlamba reported levels of E. coli and other bacteria that were so high in some parts of its water supply it had been forced to issue "boil alerts" and supply water to severely affected communities by tanker trucks, according to presentations made to parliament in June.
Though E. coli can sometimes be traced back to certain industries, it is often taken as an indication that water supplies were recently contaminated with human or animal waste. That problem is being exacerbated by the first heavy rains of the 2009 season, which can wash contaminants into water systems.
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.
A river runs through it
With its source high in the Drakensberg Mountains, the Vaal River stretches more than 1,000km to become the main tributary to South Africa's longest waterway, the Orange River. It feeds large portions of the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan area, the country's economic heartland, as well as most of the northern Free State Province.
It has also, in some areas, registered high enough levels of faecal matter to warrant Rand Water, South Africa's largest bulk water utility, to warn that contact with the river may put people at risk of serious infection.
|One of the major problems is that our system is very old - our pump station is giving us problems, almost everything is giving us problems|
Every year thousands of tourists flock to the towns that dot the banks of the Vaal. In sleepy Parys, visitors make up a vital part of the local economy, but in December, when the extent of the pollution became known, the town lost about US$180,000 a week in cancellations. According to businessman Carl Cilliers, who runs a resort on the river's edge, a repeat performance could put him and his family out of business.
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. SAVE said the pollution had contributed to stomach and intestinal disorders among nearby residents.
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.
"One of the major problems is that our system is very old - our pump station is giving us problems, almost everything is giving us problems," said Mojalefa Radebe, media relations officer at the municipality's Water Service Unit. In 2007, the municipality ran an operational deficit of about US$4 million, with an outstanding US$2 million debt to Rand Water.
Solving the water puzzle
Dr Roman Tandlich, a lecturer at the Faculty of Pharmacy at Rhodes University, in Eastern Cape, and former fellow of the university's Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality, said surface streams and rivers like the Vaal were the sole source of water for many people living in informal settlements, as well as rural and peri-urban areas.
While Tandlich admits there are backlogs in the provision of drinking water and sanitation, and that mistakes have been made, he also 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.
"[The] backlog in service delivery is huge in South Africa," Tandlich said. "Mistakes have been made in the past, but it also has to be stated that some challenges are so unique that no easy answers or parallels to draw on exist."
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.