National drinking water quality reporting for building consumer confidence (I)
5 February 2020
As water scarcity and pollution intensify, the supply of safe drinking water is becoming increasingly relevant for global and local development aspirations. The UN sustainable development goals, set in 2015 for attainment globally by 2030, expressly cite provision of safe and affordable drinking water for all (Goal 6.1).
The Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation (DHSWS) defines safe drinking water as water that complies with the South African National Standard (SANS) SANS 241 (drinking water is defined as water that is intended for human consumption). According to the SANS 241, safe drinking water is:
‘Water deemed to have an acceptable health risk or water that is safe for lifetime consumption, assuming average consumption of two litres per day for 70 years by a person weighing 60 kg’.
Consuming contaminated water or water not meeting safety standards triggers distinct health hazards. The associated health burdens have come increasingly into public consciousness. The public is vocal in expressing dissatisfaction and fears when changes are noticeable in the aesthetics, taste and smell of their tap water. But, even when not noticeable, short and long-term health burdens of contaminated drinking water should remain a priority public concern.
It is therefore necessary for the Department of Human Settlement, Water and Sanitation (DHSWS) to sustain both internal and consumer confidence regarding the quality of drinking water supplied by Water Services Authorities (WSAs).A WSA is any district, metropolitan or local municipality that is responsible for providing water services to end users.
To what extent is national drinking water quality reporting suitable for creating consumer confidence? This review assesses this question. More especially it seeks answers to these concerns:
Are the current national drinking water quality reporting tools appropriate for the intended audience and purpose?
Are the drinking water quality reporting approaches sufficient to guarantee consumer confidence?
DRINKING WATER QUALITY DATA CAPTURE AND DISSEMINATION
Chapter 10 of the Water services Act (1997) and Chapter 14 of the National Water Act (NWA) (1998) require the responsible Minister to perform specified duties. These include establishing a system to facilitate continued and coordinated monitoring of various aspects of water resources. This system collects relevant information and data, through established procedures and mechanisms, from a variety of sources including organs of state, water management institutions and water users.
The DHSWS informs the public about the state of drinking water through two online platforms and a consolidated annual Blue Drop (BD) report. The two online platforms are the National Integrated Water Information System (NIWIS) and Integrated Regulatory Information System (IRIS).
NIWIS was developed with the purpose of providing information products to the general public. Its website shows dashboards to facilitate efficient analysis and reporting across the water value chain. (A data dashboard is an information management tool that tracks, analyses and displays indicators, metrics and data points to monitor a process). NIWIS is a consolidation of ten water management themes run by the DHSWS. These are further subdivided into 27 information systems, which include reporting on drinking water quality by WSAs.
Similarly, IRIS is a graphical user interface platform. It provides at a glance prevailing conditions for potable water (drinking water quality conditions per WSA).
Both platforms use six groups of water quality determinands to indicate the state of drinking water quality supplied by WSAs. These determinands are:
Chemical non-health(aesthetic): The aesthetics of drinking water are generally not health related, however, consumers can easily detect them, so they can have significant effects on perceptions of water quality and its acceptability.
Chemical-acute: This reflects an immediate unacceptable health risk if present at concentration values exceeding the numerical limits specified by the SANS 241. 
Chemical-chronic health: This refers to a chemical determinand that poses an unacceptable health risk if ingested over an extended period if present at concentration values exceeding the numerical limits specified by the SANS 241 (Ibid).
Microbiological: Here attention is paid on a suite of microscopic organisms present in water. Microbiological water analysis is mainly based on the concept of faecal indicator bacteria and they constitute those with acute health effects and those that are indicative of poor operational efficacy.
Disinfectant: Refers to chemical(s) applied for the deactivation of micro-organisms in drinking water.
Operational: This refers to water quality determinands that are essential for assessing the efficient operation of treatment systems and the risk of inadequate water infrastructure.
Both the NIWIS and IRIS are free online water quality information repository platforms. They provide a summarised state of water supplied by WSAs through a drinking water compliance index. This makes it easy for the average consumer to access (and understand) the state of drinking water in a centralised website.
With respect to reporting on drinking water quality, the descriptors and depths of the IRIS and NIWIS information dissemination seem to be parallel. For instance, they input data from the same WSAs; offer evaluations on the same resource, though independently of each other. It is not clear why the Department operates two independent information dissemination tools for the same resource. This appears superfluous and confusing to an outsider. It is not clear which database affords better or more reliable evaluations of the quality of drinking water. Which should be prioritised and which should not? In the absence of explanations, there appears to be little operational reason for not consolidating the NIWIS and IRIS drinking water quality information systems. Consolidation of the two would help DHSWS provide centralised evaluations of the product with fewer uncertainties emanating from inconsistent assessments.
ACCESSIBILITY OF REPORTING
Sections 68 (b) of the Water Services Act and 145 of the NWA require water management institutions, at their expense, to provide information to the public in an appropriate manner or format. Is the DHSWS reporting of drinking water quality and compliance accessible? This may depend on the user’s technical and quantitative skills. The Department presents the state of drinking water supplied by WSAs in an index format, expressed through percentage compliance (A water quality index is a means by which water quality data is summarised for reporting to the public in an accessible and consistent manner). Traditional and technical water quality reporting could be replete with technical jargon emanating from water chemistry, toxicology and microbiology. Indexing water quality data and information at least offers an improvement on this. Indexing water quality helps in simplifying large quantities of complex and technical data which could prove overwhelming for nontechnical users, policy makers and the general public. What most users would want primarily is concise, accurate information about the state of their drinking water.
The NIWIS and IRIS are consumer-friendly information dissemination platforms. Thus, they classify drinking water quality using a four-level grading scale. These are described by colour codes and descriptor words where, “red” represents water of bad quality, “yellow” water of poor quality, “green” represents water of good quality and “blue” water of excellent quality. Understanding this obviously does not require technical training in any water resources discipline.
Indexing water quality is an approach adopted and used across many water quality jurisdictions globally. But water quality indexing is not a panacea. No matter how informative the tool may be, indices have associated limitations for water quality reporting purposes. An instance is the SANS 241-2: 2015; 13-14 drinking water compliance indexing function adopted by the DHSWS.
This function has the ability to transform large drinking water quality data (bulk reduction) into information that is free from technical jargon. However, the transformation of the data leads to loss of valuable information about the original data. For example, it classifies data into a binary set (compliant versus non-compliant data), and provides no further details on the original data.
Neither the IRIS nor NIWIS platforms present the original water quality data for public viewing. To compensate for this absence, it may be useful for both databases to present original laboratory analysis data. As an alternative – for users with further queries on the water quality – the Department would need to further modify the indexing tools to reflect the degree of compliance of each water quality variable. Disaggregation of this kind is particularly useful because the aggregation without disclosure of primary data tends to obscure valuable information about initial laboratory analysis values.
ANNUAL BLUE DROP REPORTS
In 2008, the DHSWS initiated an incentive-based regulation programme called the Blue Drop Certification Programme. The objectives of the programme according to the DWA  were to incentivise good performance by WSAs, promote transparency and accountability, provide reliable and consistent information to the public. Findings from the programme were expected to be communicated through annual BD reports. While the BD report was meant to provide the sector and its stakeholders with current, accurate, verified and relevant information on the performance of water supply system, annually. The Department has not been able to adhere to the set publishing timelines. As a result, on October 24, 2018, the portfolio committee on water and sanitation reproached the Department for its failure to release the reports post 2014.
Drinking water quality data dissemination and information reporting tools adopted by the Department are comparable with those used by other water quality jurisdictions globally. While this may be true:
It is desirable that at national level original laboratory data are published.
The inability for the Department to publish the annual blue drop reports within stipulated time intervals tarnish reporting and assessment of national drinking water against aspirations.
By Nhlanhla Mnisi, Researcher, HSF, 5 February 2020
 1United Nations (2015) URL: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/21252030%20Agenda%20for%20Sustainable%20Development%20web.pdf. [Accessed 29 July 2019]
 Department of Water and Sanitation (2019). URL: http. Available at: //niwis.dws.gov.za/niwis2/dwq2.
 Department of Water and Sanitation (2019), URL: Available at: http://ws.dwa.gov.za/IRIS/dashboard_status.aspx.
 South African National Standard (2015). South African National Standard (SANS 241-1), drinking water, Part 1: Microbiological, physical, aesthetic and chemical determinands. Pretoria South Africa.
 Newfoundland Labrador (2019), URL: https://www.mae.gov.nl.ca/waterres/quality/drinkingwater/dwqi.html
 Department of Water Affairs (undated), URL: http://www.dwa.gov.za/Dir_WS/DWQR/subscr/ViewComDoc.asp?Docid=604
 Parliamentary Monitoring Group (2018), URL: https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/23873/