Know the water you drink

Given the questionable state of the water that many of South Africa’s municipalities are distributing via the ‘tap’ system, it is not surprising the country’s citizens are seeking alternatives.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to ‘water the nation’ are entrepreneurs, retailers and restauranteurs who are bottling water using countertop systems and/or running refilling stations.

However, these alternatives may not be as safe or healthy as the public thinks they are because – unless the filters (or the membranes, if using reverse osmosis technology to filter the water) used in either a water vending machine, a refilling system or a countertop system are fit-for-purpose, inspected, maintained and changed regularly – they will contaminate the water they dispense with unhealthy bacteria and fungi, and not remove critical contamination.

In addition, the hoses through which the water runs, the containers that are filled, and the lids that seal these containers are hotbeds for bacterial growth if they are not cleaned and sanitised thoroughly.

Water vending machines and refilling stations have been referred to as ‘no work’ profit makers because they use tap water, despite often featuring signage alluding to spring water – and because those who own them simply ‘hook it up, turn it on and watch the money roll in’.

South African National Bottled Water Association (SANBWA) CEO Charlotte Metcalf concurs that refilling stations and water shops could pose health risks. “These premises are not considered food-safe facilities. Bottles may not be pre-filled, and the consumer takes responsibility for the hygiene of the container. The water may not be classified as bottled water and does not have a long shelf life. Shoppers here must insist that the bottles are filled in front of them.”

She also has a warning about home filtration units: “Most home filtration units are designed to improve the taste, not to remove high-risk contaminants. If you use a home filtration system, double-check the claims made by the manufacturer. In fact, the only way to protect yourself, your family and your friends from water that could be contaminated is to understand the various options and make the right choice.”

According to Metcalf, there are dos and don’ts associated with all. She highlights her most important:

• Bottled water – only buy bottled water with the SANBWA logo on the label to ensure quality and safety, and that you are not purchasing from a fly-by-night supplier.
• Municipal tap water – do not fill bottles and store for long periods.
• Refilled water – do not buy pre-filled bottles from facilities that are not food-safe.
• Private boreholes and tanks – test the water regularly and treat it to ensure it is safe for consumption.

The SANBWA logo on a water bottle means it has been produced in accordance with SANBWA’s bottled water standards, which cover hygiene, food safety and quality, legal and environmental requirements for South Africa.

• Purity is established at source.
• Water is sustainability-sourced.
• Members are independently audited annually.
• Water from retailers is regularly and randomly tested.

SANBWA members’ brands include: AquaBella, aQuellé, Bené, Bonaqua, Designer Water, Fontein, La Vie de Luc, Straven Still Spring Water, Thirsti and Valpré.

Additional information

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of water in South Africa: bottled water and drinking water. The differences between the two are marked.

Bottled water is regulated by the Department of Health, is bottled in a food-safe facility, is hermetically sealed, and has a shelf-life. In contrast, drinking water that is regulated by the Department of Water & Sanitation refers to water from your home taps, refilling kiosks, office coolers and tanks, and does not have a guaranteed shelf-life.

The water used by reputable water bottlers comes from two sources: protected groundwater, that is, from springs and boreholes; and municipal water. That coming from protected groundwater is sold as natural spring water or spring water and natural mineral water or mineral water. But that coming from a municipal source is sold as prepared water.

As mentioned above, refilled water from a kiosk, shop or restaurant is sourced from the municipal system. There is another sub-category here – that from private boreholes or tanks, neither of which are officially regulated.

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