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SOUTH AFRICA: A Tale of Ongoing Water and Sanitation Woes

Steven Lang

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 29 2007 (IPS) - When the number of people reported with diarrhoea began to increase alarmingly in the town of Delmas in Mpumalanga Province towards the end of October, residents had flashbacks to an outbreak of diarrhoea and typhoid that took place in August and September, 2005. They feared the worst as the number of cases grew in the community of about 45,000 people – 60 kilometres east of South Africa’s financial centre, Johannesburg.

In 2005, five typhoid deaths were confirmed and seventeen people were hospitalised with the disease, normally caused by consuming water contaminated with the faeces or urine of infected people.

This year, soon after health officials became aware of the unusually high incidence of diarrhoea cases in Delmas, they suspected water contamination as being – again – the source of the outbreak. Mpumalanga provincial authorities immediately called for a series of tests to determine whether water quality was indeed responsible for the most recent instance of disease.

Most water supplied to Delmas is drawn from boreholes drilled into a large aquifer below the town. Rand Water, the water utility of neighbouring Gauteng Province, also supplies some water to the area.

Local officials were almost as surprised as the town’s residents when the tests concluded that there was nothing wrong with the water. Yet by the time the results were released to the media, more than a thousand cases of diarrhoea had been recorded.

The national Department of Water Affairs and Forestry issued a statement Nov. 15 confirming that results conducted on water samples from Delmas had “proven negative for microbiological contamination”.

It said that based on the results presented, “the Delmas tap water can be declared safe for human consumption”.

Residents were sceptical, and those who could afford to used bottled water, paying just over a dollar for a five litre container of the water.

In a move aimed at quelling the scepticism, Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Lindiwe Hendricks made a much publicised trip to Delmas to reassure residents that the water was fit for drinking.

She publicly drank a glass of the local water and declared, “Delmas tap water is safe for human consumption.”

One of the tests conducted on the water samples was to determine whether it had been properly chlorinated. When administered properly, chlorine is a safe and effective chemical used in many countries to purify drinking water.

Sources within the Mpumalanga provincial health department told IPS that for several weeks chlorine was not added to the water supply, and that the concentration fell below acceptable levels. But by the time the tests were conducted the water quality had returned to normal because the chlorination process had been restarted.

The head of the Water Quality Unit of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, Leonardo Manus, told the Water Affairs Portfolio Committee in parliament that “There was a period when chlorine levels were fluctuating”, and that this resulted in a “pulse” of contaminated water.

Manus added that although the low level of chlorine was probably the “trigger” for the recent outbreak, it was not enough to explain why the problem persisted for so long.

In the case of Delmas, chlorine is added to the drinking water supply through an automated process. However, the employee tasked with replacing empty containers of chlorine with full ones simply failed to perform their duty.

It is not clear why an empty container was not replaced, but the consequences of this oversight were serious.

As soon as municipal officials noticed an increase in the number of diarrhoea cases, they instantly checked the chlorination process, found the problem, and put a full container of chlorine in place of the empty one. Consequently when tests were conducted, the water samples had enough chlorine residues to satisfy health authorities.

As the authorities were able to present a clean bill of health to a somewhat mystified and still sceptical public, they were not afraid to publish the full results of tests.

The provincial health department of Mpumalanga, responsible for the Delmas municipality, has still not made public the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry report about the 2005 typhoid outbreak that claimed five lives. Both national and provincial officials have rejected all requests to release the report into the public domain.

However, IPS has been able to obtain a copy of the document – and can confirm that the probable reason for the refusal to release the report is because it points to crucial inefficiencies within the Delmas municipality.

The 2005 outbreak of typhoid followed an earlier epidemic in 1993, when the bacterium Salmonella typhi was detected in the water system.

In the aftermath of the 1993 typhoid outbreak, a number of recommendations were made in an effort to avoid a repetition of the crisis. These included the implementation of a primary water purification system, the development of a water monitoring programme, the improvement of sanitation information systems, and the promotion of health education for the population.

The confidential 2005 report, ‘The Outbreak of Diarrhoea in Delmas, Mpumalanga’, says that “From the information gathered subsequently, it would appear that a number of these recommendations were not implemented.”

The report includes detailed explanations of how the so-called bucket system works, and how it contributes to poor hygiene conditions in parts of Delmas.

Impoverished residents use conventional buckets as toilets, and the municipality empties these buckets manually twice a week with the use of a tractor towing a metal skip converted to receive solid waste.

The municipality does not disinfect the buckets after emptying them. In most cases, they are even flung onto the ground in front of shacks while still containing residues of human waste. This results in a very unhygienic environment.

If the occupants of a particular shack require a bucket to be emptied more than twice a week, they have to clear out the waste themselves. They normally dispose of the faecal matter by burying it in a shallow hole dug in a marshy flood plain in the area.

This the same flood plain that frequently receives sewage spills from a local pump station. Contaminated water from the plain then inevitably finds its way into the groundwater.

South Africa’s national government has repeatedly made public commitments to do away with the bucket system, and in many areas it has made considerable progress towards this objective.

But in other places, such as Delmas, progress has been slower.

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