Water Week: South Africa needs a ‘new normal’ if water security is to be guaranteed for its citizens

Water Week: South Africa needs a ‘new normal’ if water security is to be guaranteed for its citizens
South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf

South Africans need a ‘new-normal’ when it comes to water – they need to become water-conscious and water-conservationist if they are to enjoy water security in their future.

This was the hard-hitting conclusion to a recent interview with geography professor Craig Sheridan, director of the Centre in Water Research and Development at the University of the Witwatersrand, conducted by The Conversation Africa, an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.

Sheridan said that the social pact is breaking down as a consequence of Johannesburg’s water crisis. To restore this pact, the city needs to focus on non-revenue water, by allocating the correct and appropriate maintenance spend to fix and even renew the water network, he argued. At the same time, citizens need to seriously consider their own water usage and how to reduce it.

Taking place between March 20 and 26, National Water Week’s key objective is to educate South Africans about their water conservation responsibilities. This is to be welcomed as the country – not just Gauteng – faces many challenges in its bid to provide every citizen with access to clean, safe water.

According to the Blue Drop, No Drop & Green Drop report, the availability and quality of the water in South Africa’s taps has been compromised nationwide, forcing citizens to choose from alternatives available to them or risk severe illness such as cholera.

We asked South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, to summarise what we should know about these alternatives to make safe choices.

  1. What are the options South Africans are choosing when the availability and quality of their tap water can’t be guaranteed?

In times of water interruptions, or during periods of infected water supply like that which caused this year’s cholera outbreak, people turn to water from their garden’s borehole, a spring in the mountain, water tanks, a filtration system in the kitchen, water refilling stations in supermarkets and kiosks, and bottled water.

  1. Each option must surely come with its unique risks. How do we know what is safe?

To be safe you must follow ask yourself the following:

  • What is the origin of the water – is it from a municipal source or a natural environmental source?
  • What risks does it entail (chemical and microbiological) and how is the water treated to remove those risks and contamination?
  • Is the water treated hygienically and what container is it filled in?

The source of water is critical. We can distinguish between natural sources and municipal water. Then we can subdivide natural sources into surface water (such as rivers, dams, rainwater, water from the air) and underground water (such as boreholes and springs).

We know that surface water gets a lot of exposure to the environment and therefore it must be treated accordingly by sterilisation (chlorine, ozone), filtration and, in extreme circumstances, reverse osmosis.

Boreholes can also become contaminated depending on where they are located, the geology of the position and what activities are taking place in the immediate catchment area. For example, if there is garbage, sewage and pesticide exposure in the environment, runoff water can find access to the groundwater and thus contaminate a borehole.

Keeping water in a tank can be dangerous without any sterilization and filtration.

Under-the-counter kitchen filtration systems require water that is already potable and safe for human consumption to begin with before it can provide the purification that manufacturers promise. It doesn’t help to use technology that improves the taste but doesn’t remove high-risk contamination.

Any source must be regularly and continuously tested to monitor its quality. All SANBWA members’ sources for bottling water must be declared uncontaminated and sustainable by a professional hydrogeologist after thorough studies. At least these sources are tested frequently and the withdrawal volumes and water levels are licenced and carefully monitored.

  1. What about the waters we buy from the shops? Or get at restaurants?

Many people choose to fill their own water containers at refilling stations or at kiosks and supermarkets. This water is often less expensive than bottled water for a reason. And, this is because they are categorized as drinking water and not bottled water.

This distinction is important because drinking water and bottled water standards and legislation are vastly different. Bottled water must comply with food legislation

By law these refill stations are not allowed to pre-fill, seal, label and stock containers in the store or in fridges. They may only fill on demand. The reason for this is that when you fill and seal water, you create a closed bottle system. As a food, bottled water requires hygienic handling and processes, daily tests per production batch to ensure a shelf life. You may only sell bottled water after test results have been received back and food safety can be ensured.

If you use refill stations as your alternative to the tap, only buy water that is filled in front of you and do not store the water for too long. If the chlorine has been removed from the municipal water there is nothing to protect the water microbiologically. Check for fungal growth in the pipes and tanks. Make sure the taps and your container are sterilized and not open to the environment for long periods.

Finally, if you buy water in a restaurant, be on the lookout to see if they have filled it themselves from a filtration unit. If this is the case, ask them to rather serve the water in a glass or wide-neck carafe- at least these containers can be cleaned well. Otherwise, ask for tap water or bottled water with the SANBWA logo. Again, they are not allowed to fill and seal it in bottles in the restaurant unless all packaged water legislation are adhered to.

  1. Is bottled water always your safest option?

Unfortunately, thanks to the misconception that bottled water is easy to produce at a high profit, there are too many brands that take shortcuts with hygiene standards as required by law.

However, if the bottled water has the SANBWA logo on it, it is a safe option. The SANBWA logo means that the water is bottled under strict guidelines according to legislation and international standards. The SANBWA standard is the gold standard in the industry. You can trust SANBWA members’ water.

All SANBWA members comply with the SANBWA Bottled water standard which includes all legislation, hygiene, food safety, quality and even environmental sustainability requirements. They are audited by our third-party auditors to make sure they are compliant. We also test their water in the market across the country.

SANBWA members are currently Aquabella, Aqua Monte, aQuellé, Bené, Bonaqua, Designer Water, Fontein, La Vie De Luc, Nestlé Pure Life, Thirsti and Valpré. They all carry the SANBWA logo on their bottles.