The state of sanitation and wastewater treatment services in South Africa

Effective sanitation services contribute significantly to reducing health risks and protecting the environment. But accessing safe and dignified sanitation facilities has been a long-standing problem for many South Africans. This brief positions the duty to provide sanitation and wastewater treatment services in the context of water services generally, and evaluates the current condition of these services.


Effective sanitation services contribute significantly to reducing health risks and protecting the environment. Broadly speaking, it entails adequate sanitation facilities that collect and treat sewage effectively, ensuring human dignity is secured and health is protected. But South Africa’s sanitation and wastewater treatment systems are under immense strain. Accessing safe and dignified sanitation facilities has been a long-standing problem for many South Africans,[1] while recent reports have also revealed that an excessive amount of raw sewage has been spilling into the Vaal River. Though intervention to address the severe pollution of one of South Africa’s primary strategic water sources has been desperately slow, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced that government is focused on mobilising short-term financing and has called on the military to assist with engineering and other expertise to resolve the crisis.[2] Claims of dangerously high pollution flowing into the Vaal River have also led to the South African Human Rights Commission initiating an urgent inquiry into violations of constitutional rights.

Duty to provide sanitation and wastewater treatment services

Although the right to adequate sanitation is not expressly included in the Constitution, it is implied by several constitutionally entrenched rights including the rights to an environment that is not harmful to human health or wellbeing, sufficient water, human dignity, equality, privacy and housing. The right to sanitation services has also been formally recognised and affirmed by the international community as “a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and human rights”[3] and is reiterated in national legislation.[4]

Local government is constitutionally tasked with the responsibility of providing services related to domestic wastewater and sewage disposal.[5] If a municipality cannot meet the requirements of all its existing consumers, it must give priority to providing basic sanitation services within its area of jurisdiction.[6] Basic sanitation includes the prescribed minimum standard of services necessary for the safe, hygienic and adequate collection, removal, disposal or purification of human excreta, domestic waste water and sewage from households, including informal households.[7] Municipalities must also ensure that municipal services are regularly reviewed with a view to upgrading, extending and improving these systems.[8] This is particularly relevant for wastewater treatment works which contain components that by nature aggressively degrade and corrode infrastructure.

As is the case with water supply management, all spheres of government must ensure that sanitation services are provided efficiently, equitably and sustainably.[9] Acting as the custodian of all South Africa’s water resources, national government, through the Minister of Water and Sanitation, must ensure that water resources are protected, used, developed, conserved, managed in line with this mandate.[10] Therefore, while municipalities are responsible for providing sanitation and wastewater treatment services to their communities, national government must ensure that water resources are protected and remain within the quality standards acceptable for human health and environmental sustainability. Principles of cooperative governance are key to ensuring rights are not compromised.

The state of sanitation and wastewater treatment in South Africa

The percentage of households that have access to flush toilets connected to a public sewerage system or a septic tank, or that have a pit toilet with a ventilation pipe has increased by more than 20% from 2002 to 82.2% of households.[11] Most provinces find themselves performing close to the national average. But Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces are still lagging far behind. While decreasing sharply from 12.6% in 2002, 3.1% of households in South Africa still do not have any sanitation facilities or make use of bucket toilets. The figures indicate some progress from 2002, in terms of accessing a toilet, but they do not give an indication of the condition that these facilities are in, or the rest of the infrastructure in the service chain. The South African Institution of Civil Engineers (SAICE) has shown that while the country’s sanitation infrastructure, including wastewater systems, is acceptable (but under stress) in urban areas, it is unfit for purpose in rural areas.[12] Essentially, the infrastructure necessary to ensure sanitation services in rural areas has failed or is on the verge of failure, exposing the public to health and safety hazards.

In providing measures to determine the condition of wastewater treatment facilities, the Department launched the Green Drop Programme in 2008. The Programme is an incentive-based initiative which aims to facilitate compliance with regulatory objectives, and ensure that all wastewater meets the minimum standard necessary to protect human health and the environment. It consists of two elements. The first is an assessment of the entire wastewater value chain in a municipality, including reticulation, pumping, treatment and discharge. The second element, the cumulative risk assessment, specifically focuses on the wastewater treatment function.

According to the Green Drop Report, South Africa has 824 wastewater treatment systems across 152 municipalities which have the collective design capacity to receive 6.5 billion litres of wastewater a day.[13] In 2013, these systems received 5.12 billion litres nationwide, theoretically leaving a 22.2 percent surplus capacity for future demand. Of the 824 wastewater treatment works, 248 (30.1%) were assessed in 2013 to be in a critical condition and in need of regulatory action. A further 161 (19.5%) treatment works were in a poor condition and warranted urgent attention. This means that almost half the wastewater treatment works in South Africa were not functioning adequately and in need of some form of intervention. Only 60 (7%) wastewater treatment works received Green Drop Certification. Although the Department recently briefed the Parliamentary committee on Water and Sanitation on the progress of the Blue Drop and Green Drop programmes, no data on waste water treatment works was provided.[14]

Although the Green Drop figures are startling, global indicators have suggested that South Africa fares better at wastewater treatment than access to water and sanitation. According to the Environmental Performance Index, which ranks 180 countries on performance indicators for environmental health and ecosystem vitality, South Africa is ranked at 50th on the wastewater treatment index and 133rd on accessing sanitation.[15]

One of South Africa’s biggest polluters

Securing an acceptable water quality is essential for protecting water resources and ensuring human health but this is compromised by the large amounts of effluent flowing into the country’s rivers. While the Green Drop Programme is only an incentive-based mechanism and not enforced by regulation, it is an important tool to hold individual municipalities to account and allow a broad overview of the performance of wastewater treatment nationwide. But the last time the Green Drop assessment was made available to the public was in 2013, and then only in part, as just the executive summary of the 2013 Report was published. The lack of publication of full and up to date findings prevents communities and civil society from accessing important information relevant to their rights and impedes transparency and accountability in governance. Moreover, it is unclear whether any regulatory action was taken against those municipalities whose wastewater treatment works were declared to be in a critical condition in the 2013 Green Drop Report.

Municipalities are obliged to provide basic sanitation services and national government must protect our water resources. However, if the state, by not adequately maintaining infrastructure, allows partially treated or untreated wastewater to overflow into rivers, it is potentially one of the biggest polluters in South Africa.

This brief forms part of a research project into water in South Africa, financed by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation

Michelle Toxopeüs
Legal Researcher

[1] See Nokotyana and Others v Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality and Others [2009] ZACC 33 and Beja and Others v Premier of the Western Cape and Others [2011] ZAWCHC 97.

[2] National Treasury, Medium Term Budget Policy Statement Speech: The economy at a crossroads, 2018, at page 9, accessed at

[3] General Assembly resolution 64/292, The human right to water and sanitation, A/64/292 (3 August 2010).

[4] Section 3 of the Water Services Act 108 of 1997 (WSA).

[5] Part B of Schedule 4 of the Constitution.

[6] Section 5 of the WSA.

[7] Section 1 of the WSA.

[8] Section 73(2) of the Local Government: Municipal Systems Act 32 of 2000.

[9] Preamble to the WSA.

[10] Section 3 of the National Water Act 36 of 1998.

[11] Stats SA, General Household Survey 2017, accessed at

[12] SAICE 2017 Infrastructure Report Card for South Africa, accessed at

[14] Parliamentary committee meeting of 24 October 2018, accessed at

[15] Yale Centre for International Earth Science Information Network Environmental Performance Index, 2018, accessed at