Bottled water, anyone? Emma Richards and Peta Daniel investigate the quality of Grahamstown’s water.
It has become a familiar scenario: people complain that the Grahamstown water smells bad, tastes worse and is brown in colour. Some experience interruptions in water flow. Others refuse to drink it at all, claiming that they have been told that the water contains high levels of heavy metals and faeces, and that their friends have fallen ill.
This water scare began in November 2006, when there was an outage across large areas of Grahamstown. After the water supply had been reconnected a large number of fish from the local trout hatchery died due to a high metal content in the water. Rumours regarding heavy metal pollution and other contamination began to circulate. Although these fears were eventually allayed, water quality issues still plague Grahamstown’s residents. There are sporadic water outages throughout the year and every so often the water turns brown. It remains that South Africa is one of the few places in the world where the water is still considered safe to drink, however the quality appears to differ from place to place.
Some students are worried about the quality of the water. “I am outraged that we can’t even drink the water running through our taps – and which we’re paying for!” says oppidan Janice Lees. She has tried to find out whether the water is safe to drink but no-one she has spoken to has any definite information.
Robyn Shield of Atherstone House is also extremely cautious about the water and boils it two to three times before drinking it.
According to Nikite Muller from the Institute of Water Research (IWR) many of the water-related claims are unsubstantiated and the problem isn’t as big as people make it out to be. The results from the water tests in November, which checked the concentration of chemicals such as chloride, fluoride, sodium and magnesium, showed all levels were within the acceptable bounds and was safe to drink.
Grahamstown has two major water sources and both have their own treatment methods and quality issues. For example, the water from the Waainek reservoir (the “problem” water of 2006) contains elevated levels of aluminium. The James Kleynhans water reservoir has higher concentrations of dissolved salt. Both of these sources are still considered safe to drink.
The issue of the water being brown or “muddy”, says Muller, is a result of pipe breakages and bad management of the water storage reservoirs. If they are not cleaned out regularly and if the water level is allowed to drop too low, the sediment that collects at the bottom gets sucked into the reticulation system and ends up coming out of our taps.
Grahamstown medical practitioner Dr Charl Pellissier also says that there’s no reason to believe that the water is dangerous: “There is no scientific proof of anything in Grahamstown water that can make you sick.”
Muller states that the municipality tests the water every three months, which is not sufficient according to current legislation. It is the municipality’s responsibility to report any water problems to the University and Grahamstown residents. During the water outages of 2006 the University and the Makana municipality maintained close correspondence.
“More frequent testing would certainly allow them to keep a closer eye on the water quality situation, allow them to make adjustments where necessary and provide relevant information to a concerned public,” says Muller. Due to the rumours and queries there will be further testing which will either give evidence of a problem or finally put an end to the uncertainty, she says.