South Africa’s groundwater critical for a secure water future

South Africa’s groundwater critical for a secure water future

Groundwater has always been critically important to human society and ecosystems, but it hasn’t been fully recognised. To help countries with high water security risks, groundwater should be at the heart of sustainable development policymaking.

This is one of the key messages from UN Water as it and many other organisations globally will be marking on World Water Day March 22, 2022, and a message which South African National Bottled Water Association CEO, Charlotte Metcalf, strongly endorses.

While not one of the 30 driest countries in the world, South Africa does have significant challenges when it comes to water. Rankings aside, the country does have significant regions of high water stress, and is very vulnerable to water risks. In the driest parts of the country, groundwater may be the only water people have access to,” she said.

Despite being invisible, groundwater’s impact is visible everywhere,” she said. “Our drinking water and sanitation, our food supply and natural environment – all these rely on groundwater. It is also critically important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, such as wetlands. In deltas and coastal areas, groundwater ensures the stability of the ground and prevents seawater intrusion under the land.

Unfortunately, human activities over-use and pollute groundwater in many places. In others, we don’t know how much water is down there. Groundwater is out of sight, but it mustn’t be out of mind. What we do on the surface matters underground.

We must actively avoid using products that can poison or degrade the quality of the soil and the water beneath it, and use groundwater as efficiently as possible.

The other important consideration is that groundwater crosses borders. We therefore need to work together with our neighbours to improve the way we share transboundary groundwater resources, balancing the needs in a changing world,” said Metcalf.

Much of the water bottled by South Africa’s bottled water industry comes from underground water sources. In fact, bottled water (or more correctly ‘packaged water’) is categorised in South Africa as follows:

  • Natural Water: This is water of certain composition, obtained directly from a natural or drilled underground source, bottled near the source under hygienic conditions. Approximately 70% of all bottled water in South Africa is natural water:
  • Water defined by origin (including mineral and spring water): This is water from a specific environmental source such as a spring without passing a community water system. Approximately 20%of all bottled water in South Africa is water defined by origin.
    • Mineral water: Bottled water obtained direct from subterranean water-bearing strata, which contains mineral salts in various proportions, characterised by its mineral content of constant composition and temperature, taking into account natural cycles and fluctuations. It may be classified as a “natural water or as “water defined by origin”.
    • Spring water: Bottled water sourced from an underground formation from which water flows naturally to the surface of the earth, and which is collected from the spring or from a borehole tapping the underground formation, and which may be classified as a ‘natural water’ or as ‘water defined by origin’.
  • Prepared Water: This is water that has undergone antimicrobial treatment as well as treatment that alters the original physical or chemical properties of the water. It could come from a municipal source. Approximately 10% of all bottled water in South Africa is prepared water.

SANBWA’s world-leading Bottled Water Standard (the 4th version was published last year) continues to protect the country’s water sources following, as it does, the 3rd version which was the first worldwide to include requirements for water source control and environmental stewardship.

A single standard covering legal, hygiene, food safety and quality, and environmental requirements, the SANBWA Bottled Water Standard continues to benchmark favourably against international standards and:

  • ensures legal compliance
  • is fully auditable so that a single audit can ensure that all legal and food safety requirements have been met thereby protecting the bottler and enabling it to prove due diligence
  • helps bottlers identify the area where they still need to improve
  • assists retailers and consumers to select suppliers of safe bottled water

Its commitment to environmental stewardship includes many measures to ensure:

  • source sustainability and protection
  • water usage minimisation
  • energy efficiency
  • solid waste minimisation
  • support for post-consumer recycling initiatives

The SANBWA logo acts as a seal of quality, and guarantees to the consumers the safety and sustainability of the water source. If the brand of bottled water you are buying doesn’t display the logo, ask yourself ‘why not?’.


Additional information about SANBWA’s source protection:

When it comes to source water protection, before a bottler is accepted as a SANBWA member, it must provide an independent hydrogeological and vulnerability report. The purpose of this report is to detail the physiography, geology and hydrogeology of the resource; the quantity of water available; the water quality, both chemical and microbiological, and vulnerability of the water resource to contamination as well as the location of known possible contamination points.

There are 12 minimum requirements required in the hydrogeology and vulnerability report. Once this is reviewed by a SABWA appointed hydrogeologist and the bottlers is accepted as a member, our Standard requires that a documented source water protection plan shall be in place and risks reviewed annually.

The focus of this protection plan must be on protecting the quantity of water supply and shall include source vulnerability assessment to identify sources of potential pollution and other risk factors, a risk-based source monitoring program and a source protection plan to ensure sustainability of quantity of water supply

The Standard also protects the quality of the water source by requiring the facility to have a waste water disposal system approved by the local authority. Where the waste water is not discharged into a municipal system, there shall be a documented effluent management plan and map to minimise risk to the environment.

Further the location of any sewage system, for example, septic tanks and field drains, shall not potentially contaminate the water source or facility water systems. Finally, there shall be no evidence of flooding, leakage or pollution of the water source.

According to SANBWA CEO Charlotte Metcalf, sustainability is also ensured by the requirement that water extraction volumes shall be monitored and shall not exceed the volumes and conditions set out in the water license granted by the issuing authority.

Monitoring water usage also allows the bottling facility to determine the efficiency of water use with a water usage ratio calculated monthly, recorded, monitored and reported at management reviews. The Standard also requires management to establish, evaluate and review targets and strategies to minimise water usage.

Every year, SANBWA’s third party and independent auditing body – NSF – audits members to ensure that their source, bottling facility, final product and every aspect of their bottling process adheres to SANBWA’s stringent standards, she said.

The SANBWA audit consists of a desk study performed by specialists and an on-site audit performed by an experienced auditor, and requires a total of 24 man-hours of in-depth inspection and evaluation. The source is inspected physically every year and tests results are scrutenised.

Compliance is achieved by an overall score of at least 85% and 100% for critical and fundamental requirements. Only then are members bottlers allowed to display the SANBWA logo on their bottled water products.

Minimum requirements required for the SANBWA hydrogeology and vulnerability report:

  • Where the source is. Two maps are required, one at a regional scale, and the other at a local scale.
  • What is the nature of the catchment? Describe the physiography, the vegetation, the usage of the catchment, activities in the catchment, and any man-made structures.
  • What the geology of the area is, including a map at a suitable scale.
  • What is the groundwater regime, including a description of the aquifer being exploited and the local and regional groundwater flow directions.
  • An assessment of the flow rate of the source if a spring, and if a borehole, an evaluation of the sustainable yield. The drilling report and the test-pumping report should be included, if available. The actual abstraction rates must be given.
  • Catchment study: Delineate the catchment, describe recharge to the aquifer and the recharge zones, and delineate the capture zones for the borehole. Note that an exhaustive and intensive study is not required; the hydrogeologist must use available data and provide his/her interpretation.
  • Department of Water Affairs: Record the various water resource points that have been registered and also the licensing of these. The hydrogeologist must specifically note whether or not the proposed source has been licensed for the proposed commercial use, and include copies of the various licenses.
  • What is the microbiological composition and chemical character of the water, as well as an evaluation of these results? The laboratory results must be included in the report. See reference table 1 A, B and 2 A, B in the SANBWA Standard.
  • A detailed description of the borehole or spring protection in the immediate surrounds of the abstraction point. Include a note on water flow measuring and water level measuring.
  • Who else is exploiting the aquifer in the near vicinity, and who might have an impact on the source being described. A map showing these points of extraction must be included.
  • An assessment of the vulnerability of the aquifer to any form of contamination, taking into account the aquifer type and catchments morphology*.
  • A review of all potential polluting activities in the area, including an assessment of the potential impact of these activities on the source. A map showing the location of these activities must be included.


Issued on behalf of SANBWA – Charlotte Metcalf – CEO

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