Water Safety in South Africa: SANBWA’s Commitment Amidst the Crisis

Water Safety in South Africa: SANBWA’s Commitment Amidst the Crisis
Without stringent quality controls, re-filler facilities quickly become breeding grounds for mould, mildew, decay and other impurities, as they use piping and connections that are not properly cleaned or sterilised daily.

South Africa’s water crisis is a multifaceted issue, exacerbated by changing weather patterns, deteriorating water purification systems and infrastructure, as well as the increasing cost of finding alternative solutions.


Recent reports, such as the Blue Drop report, highlight the severe challenges in maintaining water quality and availability. This report indicates that almost 50% of SA’s municipal water systems are not being treated to safe drinking water standards. Non-revenue water is at 41% due to leaks and insufficient maintenance of infrastructure. Furthermore, 64% of our waste water works are at risk of releasing untreated sewerage into our rivers. It is also reported that 7-billion litres of waste water lands in rivers daily.


The current water crisis in South Africa, marked by unreliable municipal water supplies, has necessitated that ordinary citizens search for alternative sources of water when tap water is unsafe or unavailable. This has led to a proliferation of refilling stations, kiosks and on-demand filling services in retailers, hotels and restaurants, offering drinking water as packaged water.


While these alternatives are marketed as seemingly more sustainable and cost-effective solutions to bottled water, these remain drinking water without any legislative requirements that often bypass essential food safety regulations, creating a potential significant risk to public health.


The Department of Health has mandated that treated water from such facilities must be filled on the spot and not pre-filled or sealed, to be deemed as drinking water. This regulation is frequently ignored, however, compromising consumer safety. SANBWA is actively working to identify the risks associated with these operations and to establish minimum safety requirements, ensuring that consumers are protected.


Without stringent quality controls, these facilities quickly become breeding grounds for mould and other contaminants, misleading consumers into believing they offer the same quality as bottled water offered by members of the South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA). It is crucial to educate consumers about these risks and ensure regular checks to prevent potential health hazards.


SANBWA and its members are dedicated to providing safe, high-quality bottled water. The logo is our assurance that the water has been sourced, processed and packaged following stringent guidelines to ensure its safety and purity.


Charlotte Metcalf, CEO of SANBWA, says their efforts to deliver safe water led to significant legislative changes in 2007, classifying packaged water as a food product: “This differentiation underscores the rigorous standards SANBWA applies, which go beyond those for municipal water. Bottled water from SANBWA members is produced in food-safe facilities, with comprehensive quality management systems that adhere to food legislation and regulations set by the Department of Health.”


The SANBWA Packaged Water Standard is a world-class benchmark, the only food standard that incorporates both Water Source Control and Environmental Stewardship. This standard ensures purity at the source and long-term sustainability, making SANBWA members less susceptible to the general water crisis.


Despite the severe water challenges in South Africa, the bottled water industry under SANBWA uses a minimal amount of water—around 530 million litres in 2023, accounting for just 2.9% of the total liquid beverage market. Remarkably, this is less than the annual water consumption of two golf courses. This efficient use of water demonstrates the industry’s commitment to sustainability and resource conservation.


SANBWA members invest heavily in understanding and protecting their water sources. Before establishing a bottling operation, members conduct hydrogeological and source vulnerability studies to determine sustainable extraction volumes and identify potential contamination risks. Continuous monitoring and adherence to licensed extraction volumes ensure that the water sources remain pure and sustainable.


For members relying on municipal water, SANBWA has implemented robust measures to cope with supply interruptions, including drilling boreholes and implementing advanced purification processes like reverse osmosis. This ensures that even in urban environments, where the risk of groundwater contamination is higher, the water remains safe for consumption.


“In these challenging times, it is crucial for consumers to know that not all bottled water is created equal. SANBWA members adhere to stringent safety protocols and environmental stewardship practices, ensuring that every drop is safe and sustainable. If it doesn’t have the SANBWA logo, don’t drink it—it’s that simple,” says Metcalf.



If your water supply is unsafe, Metcalf suggests the following:


  1. Only buy bottled water with the SANBWA logo on the label to ensure quality and safety.

South Africans’ distrust of municipal water quality has attracted many new entrants into the bottled market, but not all comply with the strict legislation that regulates all enterprises packaging water for sale to the public. Fly-by-night operators think nothing of bottling waters from unsuitable sources under unsanitary conditions and into packaging that might not even be sterile.


  1. Don’t fill bottles from home filtration systems, tanks or re-filling stations and store them for long periods because these waters do not have a guaranteed shelf-life.


  1. Don’t buy pre-filled bottles from re-fill facilities.

Shoppers must insist that the bottles are filled in front of them into the containers they bring with them and not simply swap their empty container for a full one. These facilities seldom adhere to packaged water legislation and therefore are not legally allowed to market and sell their pre-filled waters as bottled water. 


  1. Avoid water offered in ready-filled bottles by restaurants

Unless the filters (or the membranes if using reverse osmosis technology to filter the water) used in restaurant countertop systems are fit for purpose, inspected, maintained and changed regularly, they will contaminate the water they dispense with unhealthy bacteria and fungi and not remove critical contamination. In addition, the hoses through which the water runs, the containers that are filled and the lids that seal these containers are hotbeds for bacterial growth if they are not cleaned and sanitised thoroughly. Insist on being served water in a glass or jug or bottled water carrying the SANBWA logo.


  1. Test and treat borehole, tank and other environmental sources of water regularly to ensure it is safe for consumption.


  1. Double-check the claims made by manufacturers of home filtration systems as most of these are designed to improve the taste, not to remove high-risk contaminants. These also need potable water at the inlet and cannot handle heavily contaminated water.
Container in retailer
Container in retailer