Access to clean drinking water is a basic human right and it is essential for our health and well-being. Floods and other natural disasters can cause the unavailability of water and can furthermore cause water sources to be contaminated with microorganisms and bacteria, making it unhealthy for consumption.
Moitsi Di Kwaito, a resident from Magong in North West, says consuming dirty water from taps has become a norm in their community. This has led to many residents, especially children, having diarrhoea and becoming extremely sick.
“We are basically living by drinking dirty water from our taps all the time. Even though we have a canal here, the water is dirty as well because it is usually consumed by animals. We are forced to drink water from the canal during times when there is no water,” he says.
Moitsi explains that they do try the alternative of boiling water so it can be safer for consumption, but load shedding is sometimes a barrier and children are unable to really tell the difference between water that is safe and unsafe for consumption. If water comes directly from the tap, children automatically believe it is safe to drink.
Contaminated water leads to diseases
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that contaminated water and poor sanitation are linked to the transmission of diseases such as cholera, diarrhoea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid, and polio.
South Africa has recently faced an outbreak of cholera, which mainly spreads when water is contaminated and can also be spread when food is in contact with contaminated water.
A 24-year-old man from Benoni in Gauteng was recorded as the first confirmed cholera patient to die of the disease in the country, after being presented with watery diarrhoea, which is one of the main symptoms of cholera.
The right to clean water
Dr Lwazi Ndlwana, a scientist from Johannesburg who works on membrane nanotechnologies for water treatment, highlights that environmental pollution has been the greatest threat when it comes to the availability of safe water.
Water that is deemed unsafe for human consumption may be contaminated with excessive amounts of chemical compounds and microorganisms which may harm humans.
“Clean and safe water is a basic human right as there is no life without it. The right to clean water is tightly linked to food, human dignity, education, and the fight against discrimination, among other important factors. In simpler words, as an example, if the right to health and to life is critical, it makes water central as we need good personal hygiene to maintain good nutrition and health,” he says.
It can be difficult for an unknowing person to tell the difference between clean and unclean water, but properties such as colour, odour, worm eggs, and particles in the water can easily inform one that the water is not safe to drink. It may be difficult to differentiate sometimes because the properties may all seem fine and clean, other contaminants can however be present.
The CEO of the Water Research Commission (WRC), Dr Jennifer Molwantwa, says the drinking water in South Africa can be treated using any method that can ensure that water quality meets the South African National Standards (SANS 241), which is annually reflected in the blue drop report which indicates the best-performing water service providers.
“When water does not meet SANS 241 it is considered not safe for consumption in South Africa. Remember, water can look clear but have contaminants without seeing it. We all must be aware that the amount of water we have is finite and that it is as good as the quality of such water. This means every piece of object we dump anywhere in the environment will end up in the river. This affects the quality of the river water and the organisms that live in freshwater.
“Furthermore, when the water is abstracted for treatment with all that pollution, there is a high cost of treating the water to get it to meet the SANS 241 standard. Therefore, we must protect the environment and link our behavior to the cost of drinking water,” Molwantwa says.
Load shedding is also a barrier that declines water generated by bulk water suppliers, as they can only treat a minimum volume of water.
“I fear that one day we will face a situation where the constitutional requirement to provide clean drinking water as a right, may not be achieved due to the high cost of treatment resulting from our dumping and other pollution plus waste,” she adds.
How to make water safe for drinking
“There are various ways of treating water at home. Firstly, disinfection where boiling the water is used to kill viruses and parasites in the water,” Ndlwana explains.
“Secondly, filtration modules are also available in the market and can be fitted into household taps. Some of these may contain activated charcoal and ceramic membranes or polymeric (plastic) membranes. The membranes are responsible for separating hazardous compounds and microbes, producing safe drinking water.
“One can also use bleaching methods to disinfect the water, the instructions on the product label need to be followed, to ensure you use the right amount of disinfectant and let the water sit for the recommended amount of time,” he says.
Proper education on clean water is required, especially for children as it is essential for maintaining good health and preventing diseases. Means of filtration and boiling water can be affordable temporary solutions for the majority. However, people should be taught other means to overcome the challenge of the lack of access to clean water.
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