Strategic Advisory on Wastewater Management in South Africa

SAGE Sub-committee on Water Security and Water Quality

Members: Jerome Amir Singh, Keagan Pokpas, Sershen Naidoo, Patricks Voua Otomo, Thokozani Kanyerere, Leslie Petrik, David Ikumi, Dominic Mazvimavi, Sumaya Clarke, Nebo Jovanovic, Sizwe Nkambule, Renee Street, Marizvikuru Manjoro, Craig Sheridan, and Aliza Le Roux.

SAGE notes, with concern, cholera-related deaths in Gauteng (centred in Hammanskraal), the Free State, and Mpumalanga, in May 2023. While the source of Hammanskraal’s deadly outbreak is yet to be established, SAGE takes the position that several factors have likely contributed to the outbreak, including dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities. SAGE concurs with Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) officials that poor water quality in Hammanskraal is likely due to the failure of Rooiwal Wastewater Treatment Works to meet the desirable final effluent quality for discharge to the Apies River, which in turn flows into the Leeukraal Dam, where the Temba Water Treatment Works abstracts water for treatment and distribution.

SAGE is of the opinion that the loss of lives to cholera in Hammanskraal was avoidable and is symptomatic of a widening collapse of water treatment facilities, countrywide. Left unchecked, such an unfolding collapse could precipitate multiple concurrent health and environmental emergencies. To mitigate against the risk of such an occurrence, SAGE recommends the following urgent measures:

  1. Given its relatively limited budget given the scale of the task at hand, DWS should prioritise the urgent remediation of dysfunctional and failing wastewater treatment plants, nationally, in collaboration with the Water Partnership Office, which was established by DWS in collaboration with the Development Bank of Southern Africa and the South African Local Government Association in August 2022 to serve as a “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate partnerships and manage joint accounts for specific funding for projects implemented through public-private collaboration in the water and sanitation sector.
  2. DWS, in collaboration with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, the Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC), the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), the Municipal Infrastructure Support Agent (MISA), Water Partnership Office, and the Water Regulatory Commission, should engage Water Service Providers (WSP) and wastewater management officials, nationally, on, amongst other issues, wastewater plant investment, infrastructure financing, technical competency, and infrastructure security.
  3. SAGE endorses the Water Regulatory Commission’s strategy to provide strategic regulatory expertise, best practice, insight, advice and guidance on, amongst other issues, water sector pricing tools and methodologies, establishing peer review opportunities with other regulators both nationally and internationally, institutional arrangements and the legislative mandate to strengthen the credibility, transparency, accountability, competence and operational efficiency of the regulatory function in the water sector.
  4. The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, in collaboration with statutory science funding bodies – including the Water Research Commission and the National Research Foundation – should prioritise the funding of research on innovative wastewater management practices and technologies.
  5. South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) advocates for the use of technologies that minimise the use of water resources, encourage recycling and reuse, and which support the achievement of universal sustainable sanitation provision by 2030. The NDP also encourages the development, demonstration, and validation of appropriate alternative water-efficient and off-grid sanitation solutions. To achieve this goal, DWS should collaborate with, amongst others, the South African Sanitation Technology Enterprise Programme’s (Sastep) water efficient toilet initiative to encourage the widespread adoption of low flush and other water-saving toilets in South Africa. Low-flush toilets could facilitate the building of water-sensitive and resilient settlements. Next generation sanitation solutions such as Non-Sewered Sanitation Systems (NSSS) allow for the safe collection and treatment of human excreta with minimal impact on the environment. Such water-saving technology, accompanied by behavioural changes, could aid in water conservation and help alleviate the strain on wastewater treatment facilities.
  6. The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, in collaboration with the Department of Labour, should prioritise the funding of skills development and capacity building related to wastewater management operations, through funding initiatives such as the National Skills Fund.
  7. SAGE endorses proposed amendments to section 62 of the Water Services Act to make it clearer which functions fall under a WSP and which functions fall under a Water Services Authority (WSA).
  8. SAGE endorses DWS proposals to introduce an operator’s licence system for WSPs that focuses on: (i) the competency and performance levels based on gazetted minimum norms and standards for water and sanitation services; and (ii) outcomes, including the provision of safe, adequate and reliable services to customers.
  9. Where relevant, DWS should take over the water and sanitation function of dysfunctional WSPs, in terms of section 139(7) of the Constitution, section 63 of the Water Services Act (Act 108 of 1998), and section 19 of the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998).
  10. SAGE endorses an amendment to Section 63 of the Water Services Act to enable and empower DWS to take over technical, revenue collection, and other functions of a WSP where there is a consistent failure by the WSP to provide the required service, despite DWS directives to address weaknesses in waste water management and delivering water services, and to address noncompliance with gazetted norms and standards.
  11. Incorrect billing and the failure to collect revenue is fuelling runaway debt to water boards and contributing to systemic failures and dysfunction in waste water facilities. SAGE thus endorses DWS proposals to introduce standardised credit control and debt recovery measures across all water boards and water trading entities.
  12. SAGE endorses improved norms and standards for the setting of tariffs by local authorities, with the proviso that proposed tariff increases must be equitable to facilitate access to water by the poor and indigent.
  13. DWS should commit to enhancing governance and accountability in relation to water management. Non-compliant WSP officials should be subject to consequence management, including disciplinary action, fines, and, where applicable, criminal charges.
  14. DWS should commit to a country-wide improvement in the monitoring of established pollutants and  emerging pollutants that pose a threat to potable water quality and fresh water resources in general.
  15. DWS, in collaboration with the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, should support public accountability on the part of WSPs through the promotion of public awareness, and more stringent enforcement, in relation to responsible stewardship of water and wastewater management.
  16. DWS should develop and implement stakeholder-tailored awareness campaigns across the country, to instil a sense of deep reverence for water, with the intention of promoting clean water advocacy.
  17. DWS should irrevocably commit to publishing annual Blue Drop reports in the interests of public health, accountability, and transparency. 

About SAGE:

The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) is housed within the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and is steered by members of ASSAf and the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS). SAGE aims to provide rapid, independent, multi-disciplinary science advice to relevant stakeholders on emergency issues that require strategic attention. SAGE also aims to undertake engagement with relevant stakeholders to create awareness and facilitate resilience in emergencies. In the context of SAGE activities, an “emergency” denotes a serious, unexpected, and potentially dangerous situation that has either already caused loss of life, health detriments, property damage, or environmental damage, or has a high probability of escalating to cause immediate danger to life, health, property, or the environment. Contact:

About ASSAf:

ASSAf is the official national Academy of Science of South Africa. ASSAf’s mandate encompasses all fields of scientific inquiry and it includes the full diversity of South Africa’s distinguished scientists. The Parliament of South Africa passed the Academy of Science of South Africa Act (Act 67 of 2001), as amended, which came into operation in May 2002. Website: 

Members of the SAGE Sub-committee on Water Security and Water Quality contact details



Email Address

Jerome A. Singh

Academy of Science of South Africa

Keagan Pokpas

University of the Western Cape

Sershen Naidoo

Institute of Natural Resources

Patricks Voua Otomo

University of Free State

Thokozani Kanyerere

University of the Western Cape

Leslie Petrik

University of the Western Cape

David Ikumi

University of Cape Town

Dominic Mazvimavi

University of the Western Cape

Sumaya Clarke

University of the Western Cape

Nebo Jovanovic

University of the Western Cape

Sizwe Nkambule

South African Medical Research Council

Renee Street

South African Medical Research Council

Marizvikuru Manjoro

University of Venda

Craig Sheridan

University of Witwatersrand

Aliza Le Roux

University of the Free State


NB: SAGE authors write in their capacities under the auspices of SAGE. The views of the writers do not necessarily represent the views of their employers or funders.