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Safe drinking water: SA’s chlorine shortage 'a public health crisis with the potential to escalate'

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said they have not received any reports that water boards were experiencing shortages of chlorine in their operations. File picture

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said they have not received any reports that water boards were experiencing shortages of chlorine in their operations. File picture

Published Jan 20, 2022


Cape Town - Experts have warned on just how bad of an impact the country’s shortage of liquid gas chlorine supply could have if it were to escalate.

This comes after the national Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the City of Cape Town sounded the alarm that the country’s main supplier of chlorine gas for water purification purposes, located in Kempton Park, Gauteng, had experienced severe supply disruptions.

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DWS said if this shortage escalated, the liquid gas chlorine shortages would possibly affect the treatment of potable water and effluent water managed by water services authorities (WSAs), metros and water boards.

The City of Cape Town notified its residents earlier on Thursday about the matter as liquid gas chlorine is used by water boards and large municipalities to treat water to drinking standards.

“South Africa’s main manufacturer of chlorine gas for water purification purposes… experienced severe supply disruptions in the past week.

“The factory is now operating again, but it will take time to build up stock reserves as there is pent-up demand from water boards and municipalities,” said the City in a statement.

DWS spokesperson Sputnik Ratau said although the department had no intention of speaking on behalf of the chlorine gas supplier, it believed the supplier would do everything in its power to ensure that water supply and effluent water treatment were not negatively impacted by the shortages.

Ratau said they had not received any reports that water boards were experiencing shortages of chlorine in their operations.

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“As the department we hope that water boards, metros and WSAs have spare supplies that will last them until shortages subside. The latest report from the supply company indicates that production is stable at 80%.

“As of Wednesday, January 19, the supply company was packaging chlorine for the City of Cape Town in accordance with the existing agreement,” said Ratau.

Senior public health professor at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences Jo Barnes gave some insight into the essential component chlorine played. Barnes said that (in one form or another as gas, liquid or powder) chlorine played a big role in disinfecting and cleaning – especially as it was one of the most significant advances in public health over the last hundred years.

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“It is used in many processes that keep the population healthy. It is used in the disinfection processes to produce safe and clean drinking water, without which there is an increased risk of disease-carrying organisms such as bacteria and viruses remaining in the water distributed to the inhabitants served by purification works.”

Barnes said it was also an essential component of large-scale sewage treatment processes as without that step, wastewater could not be made safe to be released back into rivers.

“Such contaminated wastewater will pollute our rivers and the contamination will return to the population on the produce irrigated by that water. This shortage is a public health crisis with the potential to escalate the longer the shortage remains,” said Barnes.

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Centre for Evidence-Based Health Care researcher Amanda Brand said that if the chlorine shortage were to result in an inability to chlorinate our drinking water, “it would be problematic from a public health perspective as potentially disease-causing microbes might be present in the water coming out of the tap”.

“If this should occur, it is advisable to bring any water used in the household to a rolling boil for at least 20 minutes to ensure it is safe for use in the kitchen.

“I do realise this is not a highly sustainable use of electricity in most households, so even excess water from having boiled a kettle, cooled and stored for use later, can help reduce the risk of getting sick,” Barnes said.

The DWS, through its provincial offices, said they would continue to track daily reports across the country to determine how the shortages were affecting the WSAs, metros and water boards, if at all.

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Cape Argus