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Hlengiwe Cele  

DST/EU/WRC policy dialogue looks at potable water technology solutions

Researchers in the field of water services provision have raised concerns over people who are still exposed to unsafe drinking water.  Despite many efforts by government and municipalities to provide clean drinking water, exposure and pathways to contamination of this water continues to be a problem.  The problem is more acute in households and communities who do not have access to piped municipal supplies or failed water treatment systems.  Point of use systems are designed to create an additional barrier against pathogens and ensure potable water even to remote rural areas of the country. Once these devices are developed the biggest challenge has always been around uncertainty about who should pay for them and how to introduce them to the affected communities. These issues emerged from the policy dialogue hosted by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and the European Union, in collaboration with the Water Research Commission (WRC), on 2 October 2012 at the CSIR, Pretoria.

The development of these water devices is supporting the Department of Water Affairs’ efforts towards water quality improvement. A statement made by the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa at the release of the national Blue Drop Water Quality Assessment report issued in May 2012 says, “Water quality in our country is a key priority for the Department of Water Affairs. We take very seriously our mandate as custodian of the nation’s water resources and we have over the years sought to perfect our strategies and planning initiatives to ensure only the best water is supplied to citizens. ”

Dr Jo Burgess, research manager for drinking water treatment technology at the WRC, presented the delegates with a number of easy-to-use household water treatment devices or point of use systems, which have been tested in remote rural households but have not yet reached the people for whom they were developed. What is even more worrying is that communities continue to be exposed to waterborne diseases.

Dr Burgess explains, “These water devices have been made to cater for the South African population which doesn’t already receive a supply of potable water, and consists of people who are the most difficult to supply, due to issues of topography and isolation - scattered communities where piped water supply  has proved to be too challenging. Some of the communities will be connected to supplies while others may never be. The devices are usually simple, inexpensive technologies which positively affect the health of rural households by reducing the prevalence of waterborne diseases. Despite this these technologies are often underutilized”.

Several water purifying devices developed by researchers with the support of the WRC have been proven to reduce diarrhoeal disease, the high incidence of which is still an issue in South Africa. Research shows that diarrhoeal illness in Africa, Asia and Latin America is still a serious health problem due to environmental factors linked to poor sanitation.  Bettina Genthe, leader of the CSIR Water Ecosystems and Human Health Research Group, confirms “There has been conclusive evidence that simple, acceptable, low-cost interventions at the household and community level are capable of dramatically improving the microbial quality of household stored water and reducing the risks of diarrheal disease and death.”

When developing these devices it is important to understand what communities really want. Dr TG Barnard, Director of the Water and Health Research Unit at the University of Johannesburg stresses that the developers should ask themselves if it is practical to use the water devices themselves, and then demonstrate this in front of people.  "If the community is not properly informed and made aware of the advantages of the new household water treatment systems, they may not accept the units given to them and will therefore not use them," confirmed Professor Maggy Momba of Tshwane University of Technology.

In his key note address, the Deputy Minister of DST, Derek Hanekom said, “While the research institutions claim to have tested these technologies Researchers need to know that they cannot go for decades testing technologies, at some point they need to provide solutions to communities who need these services.”  

According to Neil Macleod, Head of Water and Sanitation at eThekwini Municipality, water testing to validate compliance with national quality standards is not clearly understood by most South Africans. Few water samples are tested by accredited laboratories. The direct medical costs to the South African economy of people drinking water that does not comply with South African National Standard 241 was estimated to be in excess of R4 billion per year in 2004.

Since 2009 the DST has been managing the Innovation for Poverty Alleviation programme funded through the EU Sector Budget Support programme, according to Mr Roeland van de Geer ,Head of EU delegation.

South Africa has had a lot to learn from water quality failures in places like Delmas, Ukuhlamba, Carolina, and Standerton.  The fact that the country has very active and highly collegial scientists who invest the country’s resources in developing such technologies should mean less risk of waterborne diseases and unnecessary deaths, remarks Dhesigen Naidoo, WRC CEO .

Contact: Dr Jo Burgess- Research Manager at WRC.

Email – Job@wrc.org.za

Cick the link below to view an example of one of such devices.


Presentations can be found below

Dr Jo Burgess,Water Research Commission

Dr TG Barnard ,University of Johannesburg

Mr Dhesigen Naidoo,Water Research Commission

Dr Jo Barnes ,University of Stellenbosch

Mr Neil Mcleod , Ethekwini Water and Sanitation

Ms Bettina Genthe ,Council for Science and Industrial Research

Prof Maggi Momba, Tshwane University of Technology

Mrs Mariatte Swart ,Department of Water Affairs

Contact: Dr Jo Burgess- Research Manager at WRC.

E-mail – Job@wrc.org.za


Deputy Minister of the Department of Science and Technology , Derek Hanekom delivered a keynote address 
Dr Jo Barnes, University of Stellenbosch 
Dr TG Barnard of the Water and Health Research Unit at the University of Johannesburg
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