Gaps in Water Testing Laboratories in South Africa
South Africa has only a limited number of laboratories that undertake water quality testing. More significantly, many of these laboratories have capacity limitations. Laboratories are a critical link in the value chain that ensures safe drinking water for consumers and unpolluted water in our resources.
Until recently there has been little focus on the quality control of the laboratories utilised in the testing of water. This has resulted in the municipalities and the Department of Water Affairs (DWA) using both centres of excellence and those with little evidence of being able to produce reliable results. Even if the problem was acknowledged within the water sector, it could not be quantified. It was not clear as to how many laboratories South Africa has, the quality control measures they have in place, and if they have suitably qualified staff until recently, when a WRC-funded study by Jeffares & Green, The National Laboratory Association and Umgeni Water began the process of quantifying these gaps.
The process and cost of ISO 17025 accreditation with SANAS has been highlighted as a stumbling block of many laboratories. As a result, DWA is currently in the planning stages of implementing a Laboratory Strategy for ensuring the credibility of results from drinking water quality laboratories, based on a pared down version of ISO 17025, and focusing on technical competency.
Through this WRC research project, a database of the existing laboratories that undertake water quality testing has been developed. This was achieved through a survey that obtained information based on laboratory capability and credibility. About 200 laboratories were identified and 50% responded to the survey. Fifty eight laboratories with SANAS 17025 accreditation undertake water quality testing. This is 30% of the total number of laboratories identified. The remainder of the laboratories provided various reasons for non-accreditation, including financial, personnel, equipment, too difficult, in the process of obtaining accreditation and other reasons.
The geographic spread of laboratories is skewed
According Faye Balfour of Jeffares & Green, who led the project team during the study, the results indicate that laboratories have been located (to the nearest town) and are categorised as follows: commercial, government, municipal, research, water board, university and site laboratories. The study has made a database of laboratories available, which will be used by DWA and other sector stakeholders as there has been no such database to date.
A researcher from National Laboratory Association, Hannelie Badenhorst, who also participated in the study, says “The geographic spread of laboratories will help in analysing where there is sufficient laboratories and where additional laboratories should be added”. “Results show that the geographic spread of laboratories is skewed significantly towards the main centres of Gauteng, Cape Town and Durban /Pietermaritzburg, leaving vast areas in the Northern Cape, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape that are potentially poorly serviced. Furthermore the primary shortage is in laboratories’ ability to undertake microbial testing which is vital for detecting immediate health risks”.
Staff shortages remain the biggest problem. The majority of the laboratories employ less than ten staff members. However, the size of the laboratory does not appear to correlate with capability. Instead within this sample of small laboratories there is a range of staffing qualifications, testing capabilities, and number of samples that can be processed. For example, these small laboratories (58 in total) are processing from as little as four samples to over 30 000 samples per month. However, the rate of samples processed depends heavily on the type and capability of instrumentation used by the laboratory. One correlation that does arise is that 52% of these small laboratories take part in a proficiency testing scheme and only 14 labs (24%) are ISO 17025 accredited.
The main concern lies with those laboratories with little or no training at all
“Training remains a priority for the majority of laboratories. A total of 79% of laboratories conduct training needs assessments, but the main concern lies with those laboratories with little or no training at all” says Debbie Trollip, Researcher in Umgeni Water. “A total of 77% laboratories acknowledge the availability of assistance internally and externally whereas 79% stated that their organisation is in a position to train personnel from their facilities to assist them in methodology training”. The study also confirmed that at least training is often carried out by a staff member with a higher qualification as most of them have diplomas and tertiary degrees. One of the concerns noted by the study was that although training was offered in all fields it was generally only available in Gauteng which escalated costs and became out of reach for many laboratories.
The recommendation made by the project team is that in–service training for new graduates should be promoted and practised throughout the laboratories. This could be achieved through regional training courses that should be regularly held to make training more affordable and accessible. Willing retirees could be contracted to train and mentor the junior staff and technicians and managers should be required to obtain registration or approval based on a set of competence criteria. The study also recommends that DWA develops the proposed Laboratory Strategy as soon as possible.
A copy of the report titled ‘A gap analysis of water testing laboratories in South Africa can be downloaded from www.wrc.org.za TT 488/11 or email firstname.lastname@example.org