The use of recycled water for drinking has not been a popular practice in most countries, largely because many people are repelled by the thought of water that has been in the toilets going to the taps.
But a few countries, like Singapore, Australia and Namibia, and US states such as California, Virginia and New Mexico are already drinking recycled wastewater, demonstrating that it can be safe and clean, and can help ease water shortages.

It’s time that South Africans, because of the country’s dwindling water resources, started seriously considering using recycled water for basic needs.

The term “toilet to tap”, used to drum up opposition to drinking recycled water, is misleading because recycled water that ends up as drinking water undergoes extensive purification. In addition, it is usually added to groundwater or surface water for further cleansing before being sent to a drinking water supply, where it is again treated. In fact, it has been shown to have fewer contaminants than existing treated water supplies.

If 300 000 Namibians can use recycled sewage water for drinking, what reason do we South Africans have to pooh-pooh the idea? After all, South Africa is rated by the World Bank as among 30 dry countries in the world that will become a desert in about 30 years unless we start saving the precious colourless resource.

According to Josef Menge, author of the document “Treatment of Waste Water for Re-use in the Drinking Water System of Windhoek”, Windhoek is still the only city in the world directly reclaiming treated wastewater effluent for drinking water, and has being doing it for 35 years.

In South Africa, the level of water consumption is skewed, depending on the nature of business that water is used for. Agriculture, for instance, is using 63% of our resources to irrigate its crops.

Recently South Africa hosted a world summit in Durban attended by think-tanks in the water sector, including the president of the World Bank Group, Dr Jim Yong Kim.The summit discussed extensively the question of wastewater as an obvious alternative to the world’s water woes.

President Jacob Zuma set the scene for a vigorous debate during his opening address when he warned that the “bleak” 2017 World Water Development Report required world leaders to urgently prioritise the improvement of access to potable water and sanitation services.

The report, he said, should draw attention to the current dismal global status of water and sanitation, and inspire commitment to an urgent call to action by world leaders to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

It’s about time that governments reprioritised water and put it at the top of their budgetary systems. The current trend is to place water as the last item of national priorities.

At the Durban summit, the question of resorting to wastewater could not be skirted. Zuma observed that only 147 countries had met the Millennium Development Goals’ drinking water targets. Ninety-five countries have met the sanitation target and only 77 have met both targets.

The question therefore is: Why are governments – despite repeated warnings by experts – putting water at the bottom of their priorities, seemingly as an insignificant part of socio-economic development?

It is incongruous for any government to try to address socio-economic issues without due regard to the importance of the role played by water. Water is life and it is central to development.

It is for this reason that at the summit, the African Ministers Council on Water, a conglomeration of African ministers who are in charge of water in the continent, signed a declaration that commits them to the prioritisation of water.

According to Loddon Shire, a respected international wastewater management scientist, on-site wastewater management issues are exacerbated in unsewered towns, and those areas are serviced by reticulated water supplies or a licence to extract water from waterways.

Provision of reticulated water reduces the imperative to conserve water, compared to rainwater-only supply. This tends to result in greater household water use, leading to larger volumes of wastewater being discharged, beyond the intended capacity of the system and disposal area.

The visible impact of poor on-site wastewater management has been masked in recent years due to the dry conditions. However, in average and higher rainfall years, the impacts of poor wastewater management can be seen in street drains and run-off into neighbouring properties.

Although South Africa is a relatively young democracy, in less than two decades the country has passed progressive water laws that have enhanced the right of all its citizens of access to potable water.

Water is now a constitutional matter, and every citizen is guaranteed the right of unhindered access to water and decent sanitation.

Through the National Water Act of 1998, the Department of Water and Sanitation sought to address the deficiencies of the past on all matters related to water. The apartheid government excluded black rural communities from the right of access to water and decent sanitation.

Consequently, the post-1994 government inherited a legacy of 12 to 14 million South Africans, particularly in rural areas, who had no right of access to drinking water and decent sanitation.

The hapless communities in 14000 villages around the country watched as water was reticulated to white farmers for agricultural purposes while they (blacks) contended with sharing untreated water with animals.

Given our achievement as a young democracy, it’s about time that we disabused ourselves of the archetypal ego that makes us look down on treated wastewater effluent for drinking.