Drinking water

Most urban South Africans confident about the safety of tap water

Most South Africans living in urban areas believe that their tap water is safe to drink, a study commissioned by the Water Research Commission (WRC) and the South African Local Government Association has found.

The study, which investigated urban South Africans’ perceptions of their water quality and the factors that influence perceptions, drew a random sample of 2 437 urban households.

The study found that 81% of urban South Africans from all income levels perceived their tap water to be safe to drink. “This correlated 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 WRC stated.

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, aged between 16 years and 34 years are more positive about the safety of drinking water than people over 35 years of age.

“Consumers in the metropolitan municipalities perceive their tap water to be significantly safer to drink than consumers in the other urban municipalities,” the report found.

Consumers of eThekwini municipality have the highest consumer confidence in the safety of their tap water, whereas consumers of Mangaung municipality have the least confidence. Consumers of nonmetro municipalities in the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, Free State and Mpumalanga have the lowest confidence in the safety of tap water.

The report pointed to a number of factors determining consumers’ perceptions about the safety of drinking water. First-hand experience is the strongest factor and consumers will use past experience as a reference point.

Among 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.

A small percentage of the population based their perception that tap water is safe, or unsafe to drink on what they have heard or read in the media. This is also apparent in international studies, which found that media reporting has very little impact on the individual’s risk perception of drinking water safety.

WRC director for water use and waste management Jay Bhagwan added 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,” he said.

Dr Sarah Slabbert, who led the study, added that although the scope of the study was small, it provided 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,” she 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,” WRC CEO Dhesigen Naidoo added.

Source: Water Research Council