Untitled Page
DWA Home Page  
Untitled Page


right menu


Register as a Stakeholder
Download New Reports


What is meant by Water Quality?

Water quality is a term used to describe the chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water, usually in respect to its suitability for an intended purpose. These characteristics are controlled or influenced by substances, which are either dissolved or suspended in water.

Although scientific measurements are used to define the quality of water, it's not a simple thing to say that " this water is good ," or " this water is bad ". The quality of water that is required to wash a car is not the same quality that is required for drinking water. Therefore, when we speak of water quality, we usually want to know if the water is good enough for its intended use, be it for domestic, farming, mining or industrial purposes, or its suitability to maintain a healthy ecosystem.

What is meant by Water Quality Management?

Water quality is changed and affected by both natural processes and human activities.

Generally natural water quality varies from place to place, depending on seasonal changes, climatic changes and with the types of soils, rocks and surfaces through which it moves.

A variety of human activities e.g. agricultural activities, urban and industrial development, mining and recreation, potentially significantly alter the quality of natural waters, and changes the water use potential. The key to sustainable water resources is, therefore to ensure that the quality of water resources are suitable for their intended uses, while at the same allowing them to be used and developed to a certain extent. Effective management is the tool through which this is achieved. Water quality management, therefore involves the maintenance of the fitness for use of water resources on a sustained basis, by achieving a balance between socio-economic development and environmental protection.

From a regulatory point of view the "business" of water quality management entails the ongoing process of planning, development, implementation and administration of water quality management policy, the authorisation of water uses that may have, or may potentially have, an impact on water quality, as well as the monitoring and auditing of the aforementioned.

Why do we need to manage Water Quality?

The effects of polluted water on human health, on the aquatic ecosystem (aquatic biota, and in-stream and riparian habitats) and on various sectors of the economy, including agriculture, industry and recreation, can be disastrous. Deteriorating water quality leads to increased treatment costs of potable and industrial process water, and decreased agricultural yields due to increased salinity of irrigation water.

On the other hand not all health, productivity and ecological problems associated with deteriorating water quality are ascribed to man's activities. Many water quality related problems are inherent in the geological characteristics of the source area.

In South Africa, the water qualities that may affect the integrity of the environment and the water's fitness for use may be grouped into the following categories.


A persistent water quality problem is salination, which has two major causes, natural and anthropogenic. The origin of natural salination of river water is geological. Man-made causes are multiple. A wide variety of man's activities are associated with increased releases of salts, some in the short and others in the long term. Immediate increases in salt concentrations result from point sources of pollution, such as the discharging of water containing waste by industries. Diffuse pollution, resulting inter alia from poorly managed urban settlements, waste disposal on land and mine residue deposits pose even a bigger problem, as it impacts over a larger area on the water resource. The effect of diffuse pollution on groundwater is also often problematic in terms of remediation.


Another major water quality problem is eutrophication which is the enrichment of water with the plant nutrients nitrate and phosphate. These encourages the growth of microscopic green plants termed algae. As nutrients are present in sewage effluent, the problem is accentuated wherever there is a concentration of humans or animals. The algae cause problems in water purification, e.g. undesirable tastes and odours, and the possible production of trihalomethanes or other potentially carcinogenic products in water that is treated with chlorine for potable purposes.


A water quality issue which is receiving increasing attention among industrialised nations, is pollution by metals and man-made organic compounds, such as pesticides. Serious incidents of health impacts to man and animals have occurred at places throughout the world through uncontrolled exposure to these micro-pollutants. Pollution of this type tends to be highly localised and associated with specific industries or activities.

Microbiological pollutants

Water contamination by fecal matter is the medium for the spread of diseases such as dysentery, cholera and typhoid.

Erosion and sedimentation

Average sediment yields for South African catchments range from less than 10 to more than 1 000 tonnes/km2/annum. In some parts of the country erosion has increased by as much as tenfold as a result of human impacts. Apart from the loss of fertile agricultural soil, off-site damage like loss of valuable reservoir storage, sediment damage during floods and increased water treatment costs, have been largely ignored even though these are estimated to be in excess of R 100 million per year.

Who is responsible for Water Quality Management?

Being the public trustee of the Nation's water resources, water resource management, including water quality management, is the responsibility of the Minister of Water and Sanitation, and her Department, the Department of Water and Sanitation. To promote water quality management at a catchment level, Catchment Management Agencies (CMA's) have and will be formed in each of South Africa's 9 Water Management Areas (WMA's).

Looking after the quality of our water resources is however not considered to be the sole obligation of the Minister and her Department of Water and Sanitation. It is rather seen as the responsibility of all levels of the community, including, private businesses, local government as well as individual water users. Through our collective efforts, the vision of access to clean water and dignified sanitation and effective and efficient water resources management, to ensure sustainable economic and social development, may be realised. Numerous platforms are available to ensure that efforts are collaborated and inclusive. For water quality the most effective "vehicle" for facilitating participatory management, is the Catchment Forum. Through such forums, the public can also be involved in water quality management.

The evolution of Water Quality Management in South Africa

South Africa started experiencing environmental pollution problems during the first half of the 19th century, with the development of towns and industries and associated accumulation of wastes in built-up areas. Initially, control of water pollution in South Africa focussed on the development of acceptable sewage disposal methods. Water quality management, however, dates from the promulgation of the Public Health Act of the Union of South Africa, 1919 (Act No.36 of 1919). This Act gave the Chief Health Officer of the Public Health Department the responsibility of controlling pollution by ensuring that the "best known or the only or the most practical methods" for sewage disposal were being used. This allowed the Chief Health Officer to prevent effluent from sewage treatment works from being discharged into water courses. It was a requirement that sewage or sewage effluent had to be disposed on land.

In moving from the pre-1950 to the post-1950 era, South Africa underwent a change from an agriculturally based economy to one in which industry and mining played a major role. These changes coincided with the evolution from its early beginnings as the Department of Irrigation to the present-day Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. The next major milestone was the promulgation of the Water Act, 1956 (Act No.54 of 1956). The 1956 Water Act aimed at the control of industrial use of water and the treatment and disposal of effluent. By 1956 it was becoming apparent that reconciling water supply with water demand would be increasingly difficult and that re-use of effluent would have to play a major role in the management of the country's scarce water resources. After 1956 the earlier requirement of the health authorities that prohibited the disposal of effluent to natural water courses had to fall away. The 1956 Act, in fact required that all effluent be returned to the water body from which the water was originally abstracted. Later amendments, notably the Water Amendment Act, 1984 (Act No.96 of 1984) broadened water quality management, and the uniform effluent standards, the General and Special Standards and the Special Standards for Phosphate, were made. The uniform effluent standards approach, however, did not cater for variable circumstances, such as those associated with seasonal changes, or with the different natural and/ or and anthropogenic conditions associated with different catchments.

In order to ensure fitness for use of the country's water resources, the users' requirements had to be brought into consideration. This principle resulted in the Receiving Water Quality Objectives (RWQO) approach, which essentially dictates the nature and extent of Source Directed Controls (SDCs) that are required within a catchment context. The South African Water Quality Guidelines, which constitute the primary reference when determining the water quality requirements of water users, were produced as part of the RWQO approach. The water quality requirements of the aquatic ecosystem form part of these.

With the signing into law of the current Act, the NWA 36:1998, in August 1998, the RWQO approach was broadened, introducing the concepts of Resource Quality and Resource Quality Objectives (RQOs). Resource Quality means the quality of all the aspects of the water resource, which includes water quality, water quantity, as well as the aquatic ecosystem quality (quality of the aquatic biota and in-stream and riparian habitat). RQOs are regarded as a Resource Directed Measure (RDM), which are aimed at providing for the requirements of the water resource. Inherent to this approach, are SDCs that must be established in order to ensure that the requirements that were set during the RDM process, are not violated. The RQOs approach embodies an approach that strives towards a sustainable balance between protection, on the one side, and water use and development, on the other side.

Current WQM Policies and Strategies in South Africa

A number of Water Quality Management Policies and Strategies for South Africa have been developed, with the first major policy dedicated solely to water quality being published in 1991. This was entitled "Water Quality Management Policies and Strategies in the RSA".

A list of the Policies and Strategies relating to Water Quality Management in SA is provided below.

  • 1991: Water Quality Management Policies and Strategies in the RSA. While rooted in the context of the time, the policy was also forward looking and informed the National Water Act several years later.
  • 2000: Policy and Strategy for Groundwater Quality Management in South Africa
  • 2004: National Water Resource Strategy
  • 2004: National Sanitation Strategy
  • 2006: Resource Directed Management of Water Quality: Policy and Strategy
  • 2013: National Water Resource Strategy (2)

Copies of the above policies and strategies can be obtained here

The Revision of WQM Policies and Strategies for South Africa

Poor water quality impacts negatively on human health, threatens downstream irrigation areas and food security, increases industrial costs and raw water treatment costs arising from removing pollutants, reduces income generated from recreation and ecotourism, destroys ecosystems and affects biodiversity. The deterioration of water quality is therefore an issue that can affect many national priorities and strategies including strategies for economic development, health management and biodiversity conservation. Sustainable development in South Africa is therefore critically dependent on assurances of good quality of the country’s limited resources.

To achieve the sustainable supply of water that is fit for use, appropriate policy and strategy is required. This implies that these management instruments must be formulated in a manner that aligns with the current development objectives and realities for South Africa.

It is recognised that the existing Water Quality Management policies are in need of collation and revision in order to align with current overarching policy and legislative frameworks. Key amongst these issues are fundamental changes in governance and institutional frameworks and the need to consider more carefully the role of various public and private actors.

The National Water Resource Strategy, is an integrated, shared and co-owned water sector strategy for the protection, use, development, conservation, management and control of South Africa's water resources. Two editions have been produced thus far, with the second edition (published in 2013) building on the first NWRS which was published in 2004. In the second edition, a number of water quality challenges were identified. A strategy is now required to direct the implementation of water quality management imperatives. To achieve this it is recognised that existing national strategies for water quality management in South Africa need to be pulled together, revised and that the new strategy needs to provide renewed impetus for the integrated, effective and sustainable management of water quality in South Africa, in line with the principles of the new WQM Policy. Current strategies are mostly focused on the Resource and these need to be updated to include source directed measures and remediation measures which are applicable to all Resource types (i.e. Rivers, Wetlands, Ground Water and Estuaries). There is also a wide range of supporting operational guidelines and methodologies that have been developed and implemented in recent years. These provide a significant platform for the development of new strategies and policies, based upon the pragmatic experience of implementing these instruments.

In response to the Country's need to take an improved integrated approach to Water Quality Management, the Department of Water and Sanitation has initiated a project to revise its current WQM Policies and Strategies.

Untitled Document
This site is best viewed with Internet Explorer 7.0 (or newer) and Mozilla Firefox 32.0 (or newer) at 1024x768 screen resolution.Click here to download Internet Explorer 7 or click here to download Firefox 32.
DWS Sitemap
If you experience any challenges regarding this site, please contact the Webmaster.