Challenges with water access
in South African rural areas

Sello Jabulani
08 August 2020

Twenty-six (26) years later, not much has changed in terms of reducing the gap of inequality and developing the historically advantaged communities that were purposely underdeveloped to favour the advancement of the urban areas we see today. Consequently, there is not much developed infrastructure (water pipes) on these historically disadvantaged communities, hence access to basic services such as sewage systems and clean fresh water remains a myth. So, many people rely on groundwater, i.e. drill boreholes to have access to clean water, whereas those who are extremely poor still go to polluted rivers to fetch water.

However, the challenge associated with most environments is pollution – which even pose a threat to our groundwater resources. For example, people without developed infrastructure use latrine pit toilets and septic tank systems to contain human waste below the surface. However, nature still does take its course and when it rains, the rainwater percolating the ground does eventually “sweep” some of the waste stored underground in a process called contamination transport and that is how our groundwater resources end up being polluted. The process is also very similar with burial grounds (graves) where some of the chemicals leeched from the material used to make caskets and coffins. Gravesites and pit latrine toilets as well as landfills where waste is taken do pose this risk of contamination.

With all the risks taken into consideration, it is thus important for communities to be careful to choose appropriate point locations where to drill their boreholes as a way to avoid drilling into water that might be contaminated. This applies to anyone who stays near a gravesite, a landfill or has a latrine pit toilet inside their yard or in their neighbourhood. Water moves from a high-lying point and settle on a flat surface. The same is true with how the water flows underground in the aquifers. Therefore, it is recommended to drill a borehole at least 100 meters away from a latrine pit toilet, a septic tank or a grave for safety.

Furthermore, it is also recommended not to drill a borehole downstream relative to a septic tank, latrine pit toilet, a landfill or a gravesite situated upstream irrespective of the distance because the water downstream eventually end up becoming contaminated, see the annotated example in Figure 1.

To know for sure if your borehole water is contaminated, there are laboratory tests availability at reasonable fees (depending on the laboratory) that can be done to chemically analyse samples of your borehole water. Drinking water is tested according to the South African Standard (SANS 241: 2015). There are other standards depending on what you are using your groundwater for.

There are specific chemical constituents are checked to indicate the source of pollution in your water and the main one associated with organic waste is nitrate. If you cannot afford laboratory test services, it is highly recommended to boil your water before use. Consuming contaminated borehole water can cause various waterborne diseases such as cholera, etc.

Sello Jabulani is a water specialist with a Master’s Degree (MSc) in Geology from the University of the Witwatersrand


Vandermolen, J. 2016. Modeling Migration of Leachate and Contaminants from Landfill Sites. Available from: https://www.waterloohydrogeologic.com/modeling-groundwater-contamination-from-landfill-sites