Water Quality and Water Challenges: Public Hearings

Water and Sanitation

04 June 2008
Chairperson: Ms C September
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Meeting Summary

The Committee continued its public hearings on water quality and water challenges, hearing submissions from a number of municipalities, the Department of Water Affairs, Eskom, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Federation for Sustainable Environment and the SA Engineers Association. The municipalities all cited lack of facilities for testing, lack of capacity, ageing infrastructure and inadequate or highly expensive water treatment plants as problematic. Some indicated that they had problems in obtaining regular testing, while others were implementing other means, such as having students at a school test the water regularly as part of a school project, to try to improve water quality. Many of the municipalities were faced with extremely poor residents, whose lifestyles were a contributing factor to their poor health. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research indicated the type of research that it undertook and described some of the programmes around water. The SA Engineers Association stressed that lack of capacity was the prime problem. Eskom explained how poor quality of water would affect its operations but noted that it was not involved in any coal mining, was not polluting, and used water mostly for cooling. The Committee agreed that the problems and challenges highlighted by the municipalities were challenges were common to all municipalities. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and the Chairperson Ms C September, indicated that a tougher stance was needed to overcome the challenges and problems.

Meeting report

Water Quality and Water Challenges: Public Submissions
Ukhahlamba Municipality submission
Ms Fiona Sephton, Municipal Director:Community Services, Ukhahlamba Municipality, acknowledged that there was a water crisis in the municipality and highlighted the most worrying factors. She stated that the municipality was covered by a programme which encapsulated all government departments. There were a number of cross-border issues, such as the border with Lesotho, which was contributing to the crisis in the area. She gave some background to the deaths of fifteen babies, and indicated that epistemological tests were undertook and proved that a number of reasons contributed to the deaths. Ms Sephton indicated that Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) had taken samples that indicated that there was no direct link between the water and the deaths.

Ms Sephton touched on the water and health issues and focused particularly on the situation at the hospitals. She indicated that the epistemological tests done showed that the deaths were not just endemic incidents of diarrhea. Other issues included poverty, shortages of food in households, poor knowledge of the people, the impact of HIV/AIDS and certain fluids that were consumed. Other factors included the high dependency on bottle feeding of the babies. The open border with Lesotho meant that foreigners would often not have regular access to the systems of the social area and only came to hospitals after their problems were extremely serious already. Health was also being affected by the fact that people were generally living in Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) housing, or informal settlements and there was widespread poverty.

Ms Sephton said that there had been two cross-cutting issues identified; governance and the border with Lesotho. There was a need to adopt an integrated approach in order to deal with the issue and DWAF supported this. Ms Sephton highlighted the multiple interventions that were taken up and a “business as usual” approach was taken. However there was another intervention that was costly because it involved the refurbishment of water treatment plants. There were various measures now being taken,  which included a daily water quality result, the installation of a chlorinator, and testing by school pupils of water, as part of a school project, on a daily basis. There had been urgent repairs done in Ugie and Maclear areas and a motivation was given for financial assistance to do tests in future. The Municipality had received a verbal commitment to get assistance from an institution for this purpose. DWAF indicated that the municipality had a high likelihood of failure and had supplied the municipality with increased capacity to improve systems. DWAF’s short term assistance included in-house training to support current programmes in the region. Water pollution and housing issues had also been considered, in the areas of Aliwal North. She stated that these interventions were implemented last October and already there seemed to be improvements.

Mr J Combrinck (ANC) asked why everything was described as a “crisis” or “problem” and he would have liked to hear positive results also. Cabinet would ensure that something was to be done and he would not like to hear references to “crisis” any more. 

Mr M Swathe (DA) stated that problems occurring now emanated from the old infrastructure. He asked what had happened to the children and if they had died of diarrhea-related causes.

Mr M Sibuyana (IFP) asked what were the causes, and why it seemed that the media would always react to issues before DWAF could do so..

Mr K Moonsamy (ANC) asked how many people were registered as casual workers, and how many houses were being built by them in the area.

Ms M Madumise (ANC) posed the question of whether the public knew of the state of the water quality, when were they informed of this, and when it was decided that there was a “crisis”.

Ms Sephton responded that the issue was around information sharing. This Municipality had not known of the problems in the Eastern Cape, and the fact that there was a potential outbreak of disease also in those areas. The public was not informed of this but all role players knew what was happening at the time.

Ms Sephton stated that after President Mbeki visited Ukhahlamba there was a learnership with all women and youth put in place.

She also indicated that funding for infrastructure was needed as infrastructure was a huge problem. 

The Chairperson stated that a municipality should not be allowed to shrug off its responsibilities and that problems should be budgeted for and dealt with.

Department of Health (DOH) Submission
A representative from the Department of Health indicated that there were various challenges that the Department faced. One of the biggest challenges the Department highlighted was the poor water supply infrastructure, with frequent leakages in the rural and informal settlements and farming areas. The other challenge was that the continuing high incidents of water bome diseases. The Department of Health alluded to the fact that community members reported late to their facilities and this created problems for the Department and various institutions. The actions and interventions that were taken included the Department of Health collaborating with DWAF to monitor and assist with water quality. The combined efforts for public health, education, promotion and awareness were all being dealt with and recognised by these departments. Spillages had an effect more on the Department of Health than on any other department, as everything eventually came down to a health risk.

The Chairperson asked what support measures were put in place for maintaining these facilities. She further asked what were the type of key health issues with which the Department dealt. 

Ms Madumise asked what measures were taken to solve the problems around cross-border challenges.

Ms S Maine (ANC) enquired why departments worked together only when there were crises, and not on a regular basis.

Mr Sibuyana said that late reporting should be being monitored by the community. Be that as it may, he wondered why the matter must reach crisis proportions before the departments would intervene. There should be active measures taken to ensure that any water coming from Lesotho must be clean.

Mr Moonsamy stated that it was of grave concern to the Committee, and should be of concern to departments as well, that what should be applied in certain areas was not being applied properly. He asked, for instance, why the department was not ensuring that the water was being treated by dosing it.

Mr Swathe enquired about what was done to alert the people about the problems, and asked how could the department become proactive rather then reactive.

Mr Combrinck stated that clinics were dirty. He wanted to know if every department was following the legislation properly, to ensure that water that was being used was clean. He enquired also what the DoH was doing to ensure that the infrastructure of these old hospital buildings was up to standard.

The Department of Health responded that there was a lack of literacy on health issues among the general population. In respect of the cross-border issues, an assurance was given that the water was sampled to ensure it is clean and the Department did not have reports that water was unclean. However, the issue of treatment of water by dosing must be taken to the rest of the departments. The implementation of the Public Health Act was happening.

Federation for Sustainable Environment  (FSE) Submission
Dr Koos Pretorius, Spokesperson, FSE  opened his presentation by indicating that there were problems with concentrations of certain minerals in the water in the Middleburg and Witbank area, although there had been improvements to the water quality in the 1995 and 1996 years. He discussed what was happening along the banks of the rivers in the areas. He noted that in the Komati area there were sixteen mines in total operating without a water licence, and that was a huge problem. There was a vast difference between the Ermelo and Waterberg coal fields. There was an urgent need for a spatial development plan for mining. 

Ms Mariette  Liefferink dealt with the position in regard to the gold mines. She noted that the mines created a constant dumping in public places, and much of the dump was radioactive and flowed into the Wonderfonteindam. The challenges of the Wonderfonteindam included the fact that people in the areas were historically disadvantaged, and faced other challenges of HIV, and malnutrition and mine related illnesses. Now there was the added component of use of contaminated water. There were closure risks and there were also inherent water quality risks.

Mr Arendse wanted to know what the failings of department of water affairs and forestry (DWAF) were.

Ms M Manana (ANC) asked whether the sixteen mines that were operating without a water license had been reported to DWAF.

Mr M Swathe asked Ms Lifferink to explain the situation at the Wonderfonteinspruitdam, and how dangerous it was to have sediments in the water even if this did not amount to full contamination.

Ms Maine noted that she would have liked to have the Ministers present at this hearing, as they could hear first hand about the prevalent problems. She also asked if reports were given to the departments and what were the departments doing about the issues.

Mr Sibuyani stated that he was not aware of the negative discharge from gold and asked if this organisation was as concerned as it should be about this factor.

Mr Pretorius responded that the layers of rock would be compacted. Ms Liefferink said that it was difficult to hold companies responsible today for activities that they had carried out under legislation and practices of the previous regime. 

Umkhanyakude municipality Submission
The Municipality representatives highlighted various challenges in this municipality, including the fact that the municipality had a large backlog in water and sanitation services. Water qualify was also of concern. There was some funding available, but the cost of running the water treatment plants was very high. Other water related operations that were being run must also be operated from the small amount of revenue being generated, and this meant that there was little money available to address the backlog. The assistance given thus far included the DWAF regional works that were operating closely with the Umkhanyakude District Municipality, the planning and implementation of large capital projects and regional master planning.

Ms E Lishiva (ANC) inquired about whether there was attendance at meetings when matters were discussed. 

Umkhanyakude municipality responded that they would usually try to ensure that all stakeholders were present in meetings. There were monthly meetings and the Municipality would get feedback from the community on issues that they wanted to raise. However, budget and financial constraints remained a problem in the municipality, similar to other municipalities. 

Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR): Submission
Dr Joy Leaner, Researcher, CSIR,  noted that the Council supported the DWAF to ensure that water reached all people of South Africa. The Human Health Risk Assessments estimated the probability of adverse health effects associated with hazards in the environment. Industrial discharges and their effect on people’s health remained problematic, because industries were continuing their dumping. The cholera outbreaks were also of grave concern as cholera was caused through ingestion of contaminated food and water. Dr J Leaner stated that she heard very little on the link with HIV/AIDS. There was, however, a link between the sunlight, rainfall and cholera. Diarrhea was also occurring and this did have an impact on people with HIV / AIDS. There were also problems being caused by mercury. Once this found its way into food or homes there was the possibility of severe effects, including women of childbearing age who were most at risk of mercury poisoning. There was a direct link to coal combustion and mercury production. The CSIR would provide research on the various matters. CSIR had also developed a series as part of the DWAF project.

Mr P Ditshitelo (UCDM) asked how CSIR would go about in increasing awareness amongst people about the concerns it had raised. 

Mr Sibuyana stated that there was a shortage of drinking water and asked what the causes were of this. He also asked the CSIR how they reported their information to the people.

Ms Maine asked whether it was possible to anticipate when there would be a cholera outbreak, and asked also whether there were other factors at play as well as the issue of water. She asked who was using the research produced by the CSIR, what kind of audience it enjoyed, under whose mandate it operated, and if it was connected to any particular government department.

Dr Leaner said that the mercury programme of the CSIR had begun in March 2006. In terms of mobilising and getting research done, she indicated that CSIR did do sporadic research on certain issues. With regard to cholera, she noted that although thirty years of research was already done on cholera there was still more research needing to be done. CSIR had been dealing with this particular matter only for the past two years. CSIR was connected to the Department of Science and Technology. CSIR was also supporting DWAF through the Masibambane programme, and DWAF used the research conducted on these issues. 

Chris Hani Municipality Submission
Mr M Dungu, Director: Services, Chris Hani Municipality, said that the Chris Hani municipality appointed four western Water Service Providers (WSPs) in the region. He referred to three local municipalities that had a zero backlog. There were about 373 000 people without sanitation, mostly in the former Transkei and Ciskei municipalities. He also referred to the urban backlog, where the sewers in the urban regions were collapsing, which he referred to as a widespread phenomenon. Financial challenges which remained as a big problem for the Municipality. He mentioned that Chris Hani Municipality had put in place a strategy to eliminate the water backlog, working with professional Service providers, and adopting a phased approach towards their challenges. It had consolidated Municipal and Provincial Infrastructure Grants and the dilapidated infrastructure would be addressed as and when particular problems arose with it. The operational running costs were covered by a budget of R76 million, which was a 72 % increase from the previous financial year. There was a low revenue base to cover the costs and to test the water quality, in terms of these projects. There was monitoring of the quality of drinking water by looking at results that would then be independently checked against what was recorded by Amatola Water. The challenges with drinking water quality included the lack of highly skilled personnel to do these tests and the fact that the process was quite costly and must therefore be integrated into the maintenance activities. Costs included traveling, laboratory charges and personnel. Another problem was that the nearest laboratory was 200 km away and they had to process around 700 samples per month. The municipality’s grading was a low-revenue base rural municipality. There was around  75% compliance on the e-coli count, due to their type of weather conditions.

Ms E Lishiva asked what was being done about the schools in this region.

Mr Dungu said the infrastructure was dilapidated and if DWAF had infrastructure plans to cover the problem then it was likely that the backlogs would be halted. The Department of Education retained the responsibility to ensure supply of water at schools.

Mr Arendse asked the Chris Hani municipality to indicate the actual number of people and households that were not served with water, as opposed to giving a percentage. He asked whether there were plans, and what the deadlines would be, and project to better people’s quality of life.

Eskom Submission
Mr N Govender, Eskom, reported that the water to Eskom was supplied at 99, 5% assurance level. All power generation water supply and storage was considered as strategic,  given priority use, and approved at DWAF Ministerial level. Mr Govender indicated that the water quality impact was complex, and issues such as permanent hardness of water, and other chemical species needed to be well understood. For example, in the Witbank Dam there was permanent hardness which caused magnesium and calcium to be limiting parameters. In terms of the impact of water quality on power stations he explained that typical impacts might arise from problematic pollutants, being sulphates and mobile salts such as sodium; from organic pollutants requiring introduction to mobile salts to mitigate impacts. Poorer water quality being fed to power stations could lead to lower cycles of concentration in the cooling towers, which would in turn increase the amount of effluent generated. This would mean that more water was required for the same energy output. Eskom had taken a number of actions, including co-operative action to mitigate the impact of water quality on its business. It would continuously look at improvements to power station operational water efficiencies and water treatment regimes, and would put in place robust operational water management systems to deal with varying water quality. Eskom’s current policy was to have joint research collaborations. It was currently involved with collaborations with Sasol on mercury research and its effects. Various institutions were active in this. There was a need for  water resource personnel to be able to overcome the challenges, and the institutions needed to be properly capacitated.

Mr Moonsamy suggested that infrastructure personnel and DWAF must look at the issues holistically and come up with solutions. Clearly, some drastic measures were needed.

The Chairperson reiterated that every municipality was struggling with old infrastructure, and this was indeed a common problem stretching across all the provinces.

Mr Combrinck noted that Eskom had detailed what the effect of contaminated water would be to them. He asked how Eskom, in turn, would ensure that after using the clean water, it was not discharging water with impurities or contamination.

Mr N Govender said there was a driving demand for coal in the country, but that the coal mines also needed to play their part. Eskom did not own any of the coal mines and therefore were not responsible for any contamination by the mines. Eskom also did not discharge water that was contaminated. 90 % of water coming to them was used for cooling purposes.

Makana Municipality Submission
Mr P Kate, Mayor, Makana Municipality, gave some background on the municipality and where it currently was situated in terms of water. He stated that it did submit the reports to the DWAF and that the municipality conducted internal testing on the e-coli counts. He indicated that there were issues around the limited funding resources coming from DWAF and the expertise expected was also quite a challenge, because the various municipalities would be in competition with each other to attract the same limited skills. This Municipality followed the Section 78 procedures around the assessment review and implementation, and would try to ensure institutional and social facilitation as well as health and hygiene community awareness.

South African Institute of Civil Engineers ( SAICE) Submission
Mr Kevin Wall, SA Engineers, said that he could provide some encouragement, from the engineers’ perspective, to various negatives that were highlighted by the municipalities before him. He stated that maintenance should be important for municipalities but this meant that maintenance should not just be done routinely, but that it should go deeper and encapsulate every aspect of work that needed to be done in municipalities. He added that if infrastructure failed the poorest people suffered. He also said that delivery needs were very important and programmes should be in place to prevent extra costs. He reiterated that engineers felt that infrastructure problems could be less costly if problems were tackled before they escalated into something far more expensive. The SAICE infrastructure report card for South Africa in 2006 indicated that human resources, or human skills were required. Legislation and strategies were also important, but these could be ascertained; everyone knew what needed to be done; it was a question of actually doing it. In the past there were far more engineers per head of population. Today that ratio had dropped. Municipalities should accept and realise that if they could deal with something themselves then they should give it to someone who could. SAICE was currently busy with an existing programme, in which a team of mentors would mentor the younger technicians in society. There were no quick fixes for these problems.  There has to be a budget for these infrastructure problems. The solution lay in having competent personnel, who were committed, and could work within the correct infrastructure. Mr Wall highlighted that a number of strategies were being supported, including water services and water quality, and was looking at long-term professional plans to increase the number of engineers.

Polokwane Municipality: Submission
Mr T Müller, Polokwane Municipality,  said that all regional water schemes in Polokwane were evaluated and there were around sixteen different water sources. He stated that the Municipality had a problem with training people who would then immediately leave and go and work for other municipalities or entities. Challenges were listed as including the need to ensure sustainable laboratory services, create an effective data base of all monitoring services supplied by Polokwane Municipality, attend to water quality at a more effective regular way in regional water schemes, and to create more informative mechanisms to ensure that communities were informed. The Municipality was involved with various role players to overcome problems, and it was accessing skills from young university students, in a partnership arrangement with University of Limpopo. Any anomalies contained in the monthly report were verified on a weekly basis and the necessary steps taken to deal with problems urgently. Mr Müller stated that DWAF provincial offices were giving assistance with refurbishment of regional water schemes and the operation of existing schemes taken over from DWAF.

Tsantsabane Local Municipality Submission
Mr M Moloto, Tsantsabane Local Municipality, stated that it had a number of problems and highlighted these problems to DWAF but when it came to water testing it did not have proper disinfecting instruments. The Municipality had sent letters to DWAF concerning this problem, but would elicit replies that the water was not properly tested and testing was not being done according to water policies. The reason for approaching DWAF was to seek assistance. Progress was being made but problems were continuing.

The discussion on the previous presentations was not comprehensive as the problems that were highlighted were similar to that of previous municipalities. It was established however that industries were one of the major polluters.

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) submission
Mr Leonardo Manus, Directorate: Water Quality, stated that DWAF investigated the political profile of water and it was of primary importance that people did get clean water. However, many of the sample points used in the country were not yet suitable, giving rise to problems in testing of water. DWAF acknowledged there were skills problems and said that municipalities should nonetheless be obliged to stick with the regulations. DWAF stated that a much tougher stance must be taken on these issues. There was an urgent need for communication, for better attitudes and behaviour. Loss of lives was not acceptable. There was still a need to establish credibility of data, water safety plans must be drawn up, and there was a need to be able to have confidence in quality of drinking water. 

It was stated that the department was doing work on best practice legislation and was putting into place standard review procedures and sector development initiatives.

Ms Thembeka Mbassa, Deputy Director, DWAF stated that there was a need to consider public opinion, and to realise that regulatory issues were vital.  DWAF had commenced on facilitating water treatment chemical regulations and reactive regulation was enforced. Investigations and discussions were being undertaken and there was a strategy for Water for Growth and Development being developed. The diarrhea outbreaks were part of the many challenges still faced, along with consumption of contaminated and untreated tap water. CSIR and DWAF were engaging in research. Ministers needed to be involved and to take a tougher stance.

Concluding remarks
The Chairperson stated that lessons from these municipalities indicated that there were still a multiplicity of matters to be covered. DWAF must provide more information to the Committee on issues relating to pollution and licensing. The hospitals should be doing post mortems to discover the root causes of the deaths. Not a great deal of focus was placed on sanitation, but it was of course vital to prevent outbreaks of disease.

The meeting was adjourned.


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