Urban South Africans confident about the safety of tap water
South African water institutions are regarded as providing some of the highest qualities of drinking or potable water in the world. The SANS 241 (South African National Standard) drinking water standard compares well with the best in the world.
The launch of the Blue Drop Report in 2009 by the Department of Water Affairs has highlighted that, while we continue to produce high quality drinking water in the large cities, this is not always the case in smaller towns and rural areas. This has contributed to concerns raised in the media about the safety of drinking water.
Between March 2011 and May 2011, the Water Research Commission (WRC) and SALGA commissioned a survey led by Dr Sarah Slabbert which investigated urban South Africans' current perceptions of their water quality and the factors that influence perceptions. The survey covered adults, aged 16 years and over, from all race groups. A random sample of 2437 urban households was drawn.
The study found that 81% of urban South Africans from all income levels perceive their tap water to be safe to drink. This concurs with international studies, which found that most people in countries with a reliable water supply perceive tap water as having a low safety risk.
The study also found that women are significantly less confident about the safety of tap water than men. Women are also more likely than men to boil or filter drinking water. Women are more inclined than men to drink only bottled water.
Younger people (16-34) are more positive about the safety of drinking water than older people (35+). Consumers in the Metro Municipalities perceive their tap water to be significantly safer to drink than consumers in the other urban municipalities. Consumers of eThekwini Metro have the highest consumer confidence in the safety of their tap water, whereas consumers of Mangaung Metro have the least confidence. Consumers of non-metro municipalities in the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga have the lowest confidence in the safety of their tap water.
There is a wide range of factors which determine consumers' perceptions about the safety of drinking water. First-hand experience is the strongest factor and consumers will use their past experience as a reference point.
The top six reasons why people think tap water is safe to drink is the fact that the water looks clean; nobody gets sick; the water tastes good; the water smells good; the water is not polluted and the water is purified. People think water is unsafe to drink, because "the water looks dirty"; "the water tastes bad"; "the water is not purified"; "the water smells bad"; "some people got sick from the water" or "there are chemicals in the water".
A very small percentage of the population bases their perception that tap water is safe or unsafe to drink on what they have heard or read in the media. This concurs with international studies, which found that media reporting has very little impact on the individual's risk perception of drinking water safety.
Mr Jay Bhagwan, Director for Water Use and Waste Management at the WRC adds that a perception that tap water is clean and safe to drink and regularly tested is a major indicator of good municipal service. On the other hand, factors other than water safety, such as a perception that the municipality does not care about consumers, refuse removal is inadequate and that roads are bad, are the main drivers of perceptions of bad and very bad municipal service.
Dr Slabbert says “Although the scope of this study was small, it provides a baseline with which to compare future studies. It also gives the water sector and its stakeholders an understanding of how South Africans perceive the quality of drinking water. The findings have several implications for policy, management and further research”.
Commenting on the results of the study, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO said “This is an important finding for two reasons; the first is that while we quite rightly have concerns of water quality issues in the context of pollution and acid mine drainage, we need to remind ourselves that by and large drinking water quality in South Africa is still very good. The second is that the survey defines the benchmark that we should always aspire to. We need to accelerate our efforts until this perception becomes the predominant perception in all our municipalities across the country”.
For more information, contact Hlengiwe Cele at 012 330 0340 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.