Although a number of studies have reported on water supply improvements, few have simultaneously taken into account the reliability of the water services. The study aimed to assess whether upgrading water supply systems in small rural communities improved access, availability and potability of water by assessing the water services against selected benchmarks from the World Health Organisation and South African Department of Water Affairs, and to determine the impact of unreliability on the services. These benchmarks were applied in three rural communities in Limpopo, South Africa where rudimentary water supply services were being upgraded to basic services. Data were collected through structured interviews, observations and measurement, and multi-level linear regression models were used to assess the impact of water service upgrades on key outcome measures of distance to source, daily per capita water quantity and Escherichia coli count. When the basic system was operational, 72% of households met the minimum benchmarks for distance and water quantity, but only 8% met both enhanced benchmarks. During non-operational periods of the basic service, daily per capita water consumption decreased by 5.19 l (p < 0.001, 95% CI 4.06–6.31) and distances to water sources were 639 m further (p = 0.001, 95% CI 560–718). Although both rudimentary and basic systems delivered water that met potability criteria at the sources, the quality of stored water sampled in the home was still unacceptable throughout the various service levels. These results show that basic water services can make substantial improvements to water access, availability, potability, but only if such services are reliable.
- Water supply