Report No 963/1/00



Consumers in South Africa are becoming increasingly conscious about the quality of their drinking water. In urban areas, where consumers enjoy a well- developed water supply infrastructure, this trend is currently being amplified by media coverage of water quality related problems and aggressive marketing campaigns by bottled water and home treatment device companies. This is evidenced in the number and nature of queries received by water services providers from consumers. In rural areas with a limited water supply infrastructure, water quality will gradually become a topic of increased interest amongst consumers once the more fundamental problems of supply are addressed.

Given this scenario, it is vital that consumers are supplied with scientifically sound information about relevant water quality issues. This will allow informed decision making and allay many unfounded fears and perceptions about drinking water quality. What is needed is an educational tool (or tools) that addresses the water quality information needs of consumers in urban and rural areas in an easy to understand format.


In order to meet the increased demand for water quality related information from consumers, this study aimed to achieve the following:

  1. to collect and collate consumer questions posed to drinking water suppliers and other affected parties about perceived problems that they may encounter with drinking water quality;
  2. to formulate answers to these frequently asked questions (FAQs) in an easily comprehensible format; and
  3. to propose different ways of presenting this information to both urban and rural populations.

Results and Conclusions

Urban Component of the Study

Consumer's FAQs about water quality in urban areas were collected and collated by surveying key persons in 17 Local Authorities in Rand Water's area of supply, 5 Water Boards and 7 Major Local Authorities in South Africa by questionnaire. The FAQs received by all respondents fell into 15 categories namely: colour; tastes and odours; white water; fluoride; hardness; home treatment systems; health; chlorine; worms; bottled water; iron; gardens and plants; perceived deterioration of water quality; chemical and microbiological content; and the comparison between municipal and borehole water.

When the FAQs were analysed according to the consumer's income group, those aspects that are readily perceivable by the primary senses (colour; tastes and odours; and white water) occurred at the highest levels across all income groups. There were fewer FAQs received from low-income consumers overall. In middle- and high-income groups health, hardness (linked to dishwashers) and home treatment device queries were also prominent. This is probably due to increased awareness due to media publicity, targeting by home treatment device salespersons, and the ability of these groups to afford dishwashers.

Analysing the data according to the type of water services organisation surveyed revealed that Water Boards receive more queries from consumers than either small or large Local Authorities. This could indicate that consumers regard these organisations as the best source of information, or perhaps that local authorities usually pass consumer queries onto Water Boards.

The answers to urban consumer's water quality related FAQs were consolidated into a Trouble Shooting Guide consisting of 20 question-and-answer Fact Sheets. Each Fact Sheet deals with a specific FAQ and details: the specific question, possible answers to the question, possible effects on the consumer (including health, aesthetic and economic), and advice on what the consumer should do if the problem should arise.

Few local authorities currently produce water quality information for the consumer in the form of brochures or even yearly summaries. In contrast, 80% of the Water Boards surveyed do. This could be due to budget constraints, lack of knowledge or a lack of customer focus amongst the local authorities.

An analysis of the developments in dealing with consumer complaints planned in the various organisations showed that the majority had no suggestions or were satisfied with the current situation. Some did plan to develop a more customer- focused structure.

Improved communication with and education of the consumer was identified as the main way of improving customer care and various methods to achieve this were presented. The idea that customer care should be the responsibility of the bulk supplier was a prevailing belief. Local Authorities felt that the bulk supplier should be responsible for communication and education of consumers and officials in Local Authorities.

Water service providers need to accept that the provision of information regarding a service or product that they provide is an essential part of that service or product itself. Ways to improve customer focus, and consumer education and education need to explored ;and implemented in water service providers. Support and information transfer between water boards and local authorities need to be improved in this regard.

Rural Component of the Study

Because of the highly variable rural water supply landscape in South Africa, it was far more challenging to ascertain the water quality related FAQs that consumers in rural communities have. A small study was however conducted within the constraints of the project scope and budget. A questionnaire-based survey was conducted among 10 organisations involved in rural water supply and sanitation programmes around the country. The respondents had experience in working with rural communities in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu Natal, Mpumalanga, Gauteng, and Northern Province.

The rural communities among which the respondents had worked used a wide range of sources of drinking water. The FAQs were analysed according to the following categories of drinking water sources: rivers and dams; boreholes, wells and springs; standpipes and tankers; and a regulated water supply on the property. The FAQs across all water sources fell into 11 categories, namely: aesthetics; convenience of supply; funding; health; infrastructure; maintenance; metering; monitoring; payment; reliability of supply; and tradition and ownership. Clearly, rural consumers have queries about a broad range of water-related topics and not many about water quality.

Consumers with a regulated supply on their property had the least queries, indicating either satisfaction with the scheme, or a lack of problems. In contrast, those using groundwater sources had many varied queries. This is understandable from people using a communal and concentrated source. Users of rivers and dams had queries predominantly about infrastructure and funding and payment, as would be expected from consumers considering upgrading their water scheme. Consumers using standpipes and tankers had concerns about maintenance and payment as responsibility for these communal schemes are a topic of debate.

The only strictly water quality related FAQs received from rural consumers were those falling into the aesthetic, health and monitoring categories. The queries (especially those in the health category) revealed a need for education and training about fundamental issues such as disease, hygiene and water itself. They also highlighted beliefs that dismiss the role of water quality in disease. In the light of these findings, it was clear that a simple question and answer type Trouble Shooting Guide would not be adequate or informative for rural consumers at this stage. More thorough water education and training programmes about water need to be designed (with local beliefs and traditions in mind) to raise the overall knowledge base.

Therefore, recommendations for the content of water-related education training programmes were compiled for use by all parties involved in the development of such programmes. These include topics under the headings of: What is Water and What is it Made Up Of; Water Treatment; Water Quality and Health; Basic Health and Hygiene Awareness; The Importance of Monitoring; and The Monitoring Process.

Water related education and training programmes using the recommended content need to be presented to rural communities in appropriate and effective formats if they are to be effective. The organisations surveyed had many suggestions regarding ways to communicate with rural consumers. As would be expected amongst communities with low literacy levels, verbal and interactive or pictorial means of communication stand out above written forms. Radio was the most frequently suggested avenue, followed by community workshops. Drama was also a popular choice. School children stood out as an important group for information dissemination via both talks by experts or more importantly the curriculum itself. The chosen format should be dictated by the community involved and the existing community structures and belief systems.


The urban component of the study was largely successful in reaching the original objectives. The FAQs were collected from a large and fairly representative sample. A Trouble Shooting Guide in the form of 20 question-and-answer Fact Sheets was produced and is ready for use by consumers. The issue of how to better address consumer concerns about water quality was investigated revealing a lack of existing resources amongst local authorities, and a lack of customer focus. The need for improved communication with and education of the consumer was revealed. Various suggestions in this regard were presented. The rural study was far more challenging within the scope of this project's time and budget. As a result the rural component should be viewed as a pilot study and a springboard for future research. However it does give an indication of the range of FAQs existing in rural consumer groups and how they vary according to the water source being utilised. The data also reveal a need for basic education about water and water-related issues amongst these communities. Both the content of water education and training programmes and ways of conveying this information across were suggested.

Recommendations for Future Research and Technology

In the urban context, there is a need to investigate ways of improving customer focus amongst water services providers. Resources and methods of communicating with and educating the consumer in the water supply industry need to be researched and developed. The communication between water boards and local authorities (especially in the field of customer care) needs to be improved.

A more thorough investigation into the water related concerns of rural consumer's needs to be conducted. Education and training programmes about water and related issues need to be developed and implemented through appropriate channels.