SA has set bold targets to ensure universal access to water and sanitation by 2014. One consequence of South Africa's comparative wealth is that government has substantial fiscal resources to fund rapid infrastructure development and service upgrading and subsidise a portion of the recurrent costs of water and sanitation services for low income households. More than 70% of the population now has at least a VIP toilet, and about 56% have sewered flush toilets.

Government's commitment to improving sanitation services does not yet align with the municipal capacity to run sewered sanitation with centralised wastewater treatment as the default in all urban settlements. Decaying networks, sewer spills and rising levels of wastewater treatment failure are polluting South Africa's water systems and, in time, could compromise national water security in a context of growing scarcity.

South Africa urgently needs to find lower cost, less skills-intensive ways of treating wastewater that have a reduced risk of failure and which meet people's need for robust, sustainable services. DEWATS approaches have significant merit.

Implementation of DEWATS approaches in South Africa must take account of three main challenges:

  • ▪ The willingness of South African municipalities to consider alternatives to conventional sewering and wastewater treatment

  • ▪ The nutrient load of the final treated effluent, given the importance of safe-guarding river water quality in a context of growing water scarcity

  • ▪ Partnering and co-management dynamics in a context of state-centric supply-side service provision

The paper reviews each in the context of a leading innovator in sanitation improvement in South Africa, eThekwini Metro Municipality. In 2010, the Metro will test the technical limits of DEWATS treatment efficacy at a purpose-built research site. The results will inform the utility's decision about whether to proceed with DEWATS from a technical perspective, and if so, how.

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