Botswana’s potable water unhealthy – UN report

16 Sep 2019

United Nations Special Rapporteur has confirmed Batswana’s fears that they are drinking water that may not be safe for human consumption.

The finding that Botswana’s potable water is unsafe for drinking was first made by the United States Embassy in Gaborone – a claim which at the time peeved the former President Khama Khama administration.

In a follow-up analysis of his visits focusing on the implementation of recommendations presented in his country visit reports, Special Rapporteur on Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, Léo Heller, found that there is still low compliance levels of microbiological analysis of water sources, and the insufficiency of existing wastewater treatment facilities in Gaborone and Francistown.

The follow up report says, sampling of 34 monitoring areas, performed by the WUC, revealed high levels of non-compliance with microbiological parameters and/or an absence of data.

The Special Rapporteur noted the low effectiveness of Botswana’s current water quality monitoring system, in particular the lack of water quality information exchange between the country’s main provider, the Water Utilities Corporation (WUC) and the Ministry of Health, which has responsibility for monitoring the quality of drinking water, the lack of availability of information regarding water quality for communities, and the sporadic nature of testing. 

Heller explained that the main findings of the follow-up are presented in the current report, introducing the level of development of the recommendations and highlighting further recommendations derived from the current status.

“At the time of the visit, the Government accepted the recommendation to improve water treatment, and outlined several methods utilised by the WUC to address microbial contamination of water sources, including the auditing and servicing of disinfection systems and the use of disinfecting floaters where systems do not exist,” said Heller.

In its response to the questionnaire, the Government further stated that “[r]aw water from surface water sources is treated by passing it through conventional water treatment facilities with flocculants and finally [is] disinfected with chlorine/chlorine dioxide. Currently the chlorine facilities are being upgraded to the use of chlorine dioxide which is more effective. Raw water from groundwater is treated with appropriate treatment facilities e.g. Reverse Osmosis technology.”

The Special Rapporteur said he was pleased that the Government accepted his recommendation and takes the upgrading of the water treatment facilities as a positive step. However, he noted that as no data has been made available regarding water quality levels after the upgrading processes it is not clear whether the updated treatment facilities have impacted positively the quality of water.

In relation to establishing an improved system for water quality monitoring, during the Special Rapporteur’s mission the Government noted that it had already implemented plans to improve the frequency of water quality monitoring by establishing a “multi-stakeholder Water, Sanitation and Hygiene programme,” which brings together stakeholders including the WUC, Botswana Bureau of Standards, and Ministries of Health; Minerals, Energy and Water Resources; and Local Government and Rural Development.

In responding to the questionnaire, the Government elaborated on this plan. It noted that, under the scheme, the Department of Water Affairs will be responsible for monitoring ambient water quality, the WUC will guarantee the quality of water during the course of its production, and the Ministry of Health has the overarching responsibility of ensuring compliance with the Botswana standards for drinking water.

The government further noted that the WUC will, itself, monitor water quality on a daily basis, however the functions of the Ministry of Health will be delegated to local authorities via the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development. Under the programme all stakeholders will communicate and where non-compliance with quality standards is identified by local authorities the WUC is required to rectify this.

Whilst the Special Rapporteur said he was encouraged by the efforts of the government to develop a more stringent system of water quality monitoring to ensure quality levels do not drop to inadequate levels, sufficient, up-to-date information and data has not yet been made available regarding the programme in order to judge its effectiveness.

“In particular, information is lacking regarding the measures that have been taken by the Government to improve the coordination of water quality monitoring between the various stakeholders in the programme, and if and how these measures have had an impact on the quality of drinking water,” said Heller.

He said  the Government has noted that the Department of Water Affairs has increased the frequency of water quality monitoring two times since the practice was initially introduced, however this does not clarify the precise levels of monitoring, and therefore speaks little to their effectiveness and compliance with standards.

The Special Rapporteur continues to encourage the establishment of an improved systematic water quality monitoring system, integrating the roles and activities of the Water Utilities Corporation, the Ministry of Health and other stakeholders. However, Heller said, more information is needed regarding how the revised processes operate in order to be able to fully assess whether they are capable of assisting Botswana to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights to water and sanitation.

This is not the first time that concerns have been raised over the quality of portable water in Botswana, as in 2013 the American Embassy in Gaborone issued an internal memo to its staff warning them not to drink tap water in Gaborone as it was unsafe to drink.