In a speech welcoming the new heads of diplomatic missions to South Africa this week, President Jacob Zuma claimed South Africa is "one of only 12 countries where tap water is safe to drink throughout the country". This, he said, "is because we spend so much on capturing, storing and distributing water in a safe and clean way".
Zuma is not the first South African politician to make the claim and probably will not be the last.
Former Water Affairs minister Buyelwa Sonjica once claimed that the country's drinking water “ranks among the best in the world” and that South Africa is “one of only a handful of countries globally where one can drink water directly from the tap with confidence”.
In April this year, Africa Check investigated similar claims made by the Institute of Waste Management of Southern Africa (IWMSA).
In a press release - distributed by the South African Press Association’s Public Relations Wire Service and published verbatim as a news report by websites that included News24.com and SAGoodnews.co.za - the Institute stated that "South Africa has the distinction of being one of only twelve countries in the world where it is safe to drink our tap water".
As we reported then, this and a number of other such claims are not supported by the evidence.
South Africa does well for a 'water-stressed' countryLet's start with the fact that South Africa is relatively poorly endowed with water resources and is considered a “water-stressed” country.
Nevertheless, the minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, claimed in a budget vote speech earlier this year that an average of 95.2% of South Africans have access to "clean and safe drinking water", up from just 59% in 1994. A month later, she said the percentage of South Africans with access to "clean and safe" drinking water was 94.7%.
A reader asked us to investigate the latter claim. As we found then, South Africa has made remarkable strides over the past 20 years in providing its citizens with access to piped water. But the claim that 94.7% - or even 95.2% - of South Africans have access to "clean and safe" drinking water is simply not true.
But is SA tap water "among the best in the world"?
We know that Molewa's predecessor, Buyelwa Sonjica, has in the past claimed that South Africa is “one of only a handful of countries globally where one can drink water directly from the tap with confidence”.
Water scientists and researchers contacted by Africa Check told us they were not aware of any international water quality rankings or surveys showing that South Africa is only one of twelve countries with safe tap water or that the quality of its tap water is ranked “third best overall”.
Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, research manager for drinking water treatment and quality at South Africa’s Water Research Commission (WRC), said she was “not aware of any study done to rank drinking water quality or safety in the world...”
Not all water in SA is safeAnd Dr Kalebaila pointed out that water quality varies around South Africa.
“Our drinking water standard compares well with other global standards so, essentially, drinking water that meets our national standard can be said to be of ‘world-class quality.’"
"However," she added, "this statement must be used cautiously because it only refers to water that meets the standard, and not for the whole country.”
Her colleague, Dr Kevin Murray, research manager for water quality management at the WRC, said he too was not aware of any study putting South Africa into a handful of countries with the best water in the world.
“I am under the impression that our drinking water is generally world-class but I am not aware of any ranking study.”
Dr Anthony Turton, a prominent water resource management specialist and professor at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Environmental Management, said the claims by the IWMSA sounded “more like propaganda than empiric”.
“I am not aware of any objective ranking system operating at global level. In fact, the water world is filled with myths of this nature. Bottom line is that water has to be supplied at a given quality in each country. These quality standards are not entirely consistent, although there is some convergence on norms such as those provided by the World Health Organization.
The 28 countries in the EU all have safe water“Certainly every European Union member state has water that is safe to drink, simply by virtue of the fact that they are strictly governed by the EU Framework Directive. There are more than 12 countries in the EU (28 in total), so there goes the validity of the statements made by IWMSA," Turton said.
"Certainly the USA and Canada is world class, as are many South and Central American countries. In Asia we have sophisticated economies like Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and others, all of which have high quality. Australia stands out above the rest as a world trend setter in standards of all sorts, including water accounting.”
Turton, who co-authored chapters in the 2012 United Nations World Water Development Report, said: “By-and-large, it is absolutely safe to drink tap water in most places and certainly not just twelve countries in the world. That is absolute nonsense.”
Media release "not a scholarly paper"For the purposes of our original report, we looked at the origins of the Institute of Waste Management's claim. The press statement (which could still be found unchanged on the Institute's website in October 2013) was issued by Reputation Matters, a “corporate reputation management company” employed by the Institute to handle media relations.
Esther le Roux, the Reputation Matters media contact who handled the statement, told Africa Check that the statistics were “taken from various different sources on the Internet and not from a scientific journal”. She said that subsequent to issuing the statement she has come to realise that this is a “very, very complex issue”
In an email to Africa Check, Le Roux said: [O]ur media release was not a scholarly paper and intended to focus on limiting the contamination of water at source level...”
She provided links to various websites she had consulted. One of them, ZAR.co.za, stated without attribution on a page headlined, “What makes South Africa Unique?”, that “South Africa is one of only 12 countries where tap water is safe to drink. Its (sic) tap water is rated the third best worldwide.” Another was SAGoodnews.co.za which cited the IWMSA as a reference. The third was the Rhodes University Alumni website which contains a page listing “many surprising and unknown things about South Africa”.
A Google search of the phrase pulls up over 2000 results on Twitter and the web for the claim, dating back several years, but provides few clues as to its origin.
Conclusion: Claims of SA's water quality ranking are untrue
So what conclusion can be drawn? South Africa’s tap water is generally considered good, although supplies to some rural communities and local municipalities are wanting. (For more, see our report on the claim that 94% of South Africans have access to clean and safe drinking water)
But the claim that South Africa is only one of twelve countries, or a handful of countries, with safe drinking water, is clearly incorrect. So is the claim that South Africa has the “third best” water in the world.
This report highlights the dangers - for reporters and politicians - of relying on unverified Internet research as source material. The publication earlier this year of the Institute's press release as a news story by otherwise reputable news websites shows what happens when media use unchecked press releases as the basis for news coverage.
And President Zuma - or his speechwriters - should do better research and try and avoid trotting out untrue claims to foreign diplomats and ambassadors.
Edited by Peter Cunliffe-Jones