Treated sewage effluent is keeping the taps running in drought-stricken Beaufort West.
The reservoir that holds the town's supply of water, collected from both boreholes and treated effluent, is just 30% full.
Christopher Wright, head of the municipality's engineering section, said if it were not for the treated sewage effluent component, the level in the reservoir level would be substantially lower.
"It is the only sustainable water resource Beaufort West has at this stage," Wright said.
The town gets 20% of its water from South Africa's only direct potable reuse plant - also called a "toilet to tap" plant - where treated sewage effluent is piped to a water treatment facility, turned into drinking water and then pumped directly back into the town's water supply system.
"It is the only direct potable reuse plant in the country. We do all the treatment at one plant."
No permanent rivers
The plant has been operating since 2011, built after Beaufort West's taps almost ran dry in a drought. At the time, South Africans rallied and sent many thousands of litres of bottled water to the town, while holiday-makers travelling on the N1 dropped off many more at petrol stations for collection.
What makes Beaufort West's water supply tricky, is that there are no permanent rivers in the surrounding area, so the town's Gamka Dam can fill up only by collecting surface run-off when it rains.
"Beaufort West is in the summer rainfall area, but the rains last summer were not good. The Gamka Dam has been dry since March," Wright said.
Apart from treated sewage effluent, the rest of the water in the town's reservoir comes from underground water pumped up from boreholes. As the drought intensifies, several of these have dried up because the water table has dropped substantially.
It was around 12m deep last year, but has dropped to between 30m and 35m deep this year.
The filtered, disinfected sewage effluent meets the Department of Water and Sanitation's SANS 241 requirements for drinking water.
But recently, Beaufort West residents have been complaining about the smell and taste of the tap water, and many have not been drinking it since the start of the year.
News24 spoke to some residents who ran businesses and guesthouses in the town, and none of them drank the tap water any more.
Pamela Nel from Beaufort Manor Country Lodge was born and raised in Beaufort West, left as an adult and returned in 2014.
"It was only in 2017 that it started to taste really bad. It tastes awful. Some of my friends in Mandlenkosi where I live say they are used to it, but I don't drink it. I buy bottled water," Nel said.
Chantelle Esterhuizen from Haus Holzapfel guesthouse said she stopped drinking the tap water about a year ago.
"It tastes so bad I don't even drink it in coffee."
But Wright says the taste has nothing to do with the treated sewage effluent, which is purified to a high standard laid down by the national government.
"The taste is most probably from the borehole water. Because the water table is much lower, the water is more saline, more brackish, more salty you can say. But it still meets the SANS 241 standards," Wright said.
Adriaan Botha, who runs a bottled water outlet in Beaufort West, said he sells about 50 000l a month of water that he purifies on site. Customers bring their own containers to fill up from his shop at R1 a litre. He also sells bottled water.
"We use reverse osmosis so it takes out a lot of the dissolved salts. People use it for drinking and cooking."
He was unable to say if there had been a spike in the amount of bottled water people bought as he had been operating in the town only since 2017.
Of the residents surveyed, there was only one who said the tap water was fine: Kobus Rossouw from Spinwiel Antiques and Museum.
"Ag it's all in their heads. There's nothing wrong with the water," Rossouw said.
Does he drink it?
"No, I never drink water, I only drink tea. From childhood I have never drunk anything but tea. No strong drink, not even communion wine. Also I don't eat cake. Never."
Read this report on News24Wire.com.
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