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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Public perception of drinking water safety in South Africa 2002–2009: a repeated cross-sectional study

Jim A Wright1*, Hong Yang1, Ulrike Rivett2 and Stephen W Gundry3

Author affiliations

1 Geography and Environment, University of Southampton, University Road, Southampton, SO17 1BJ, UK

2 iCOMMS, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Cape Town, Rondebosch, 7700, Cape Town, South Africa

3 Water and Health Research Centre, Merchant Venturers Building, University of Bristol, Bristol, BS8 1UB, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Public Health 2012, 12:556  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-556

Published: 27 July 2012



In low and middle income countries, public perceptions of drinking water safety are relevant to promotion of household water treatment and to household choices over drinking water sources. However, most studies of this topic have been cross-sectional and not considered temporal variation in drinking water safety perceptions. The objective of this study is to explore trends in perceived drinking water safety in South Africa and its association with disease outbreaks, water supply and household characteristics.


This repeated cross-sectional study draws on General Household Surveys from 2002–2009, a series of annual nationally representative surveys of South African households, which include a question about perceived drinking water safety. Trends in responses to this question were examined from 2002–2009 in relation to reported cholera cases. The relationship between perceived drinking water safety and organoleptic qualities of drinking water, supply characteristics, and socio-economic and demographic household characteristics was explored in 2002 and 2008 using hierarchical stepwise logistic regression.


The results suggest that perceived drinking water safety has remained relatively stable over time in South Africa, once the expansion of improved supplies is controlled for. A large cholera outbreak in 2000–02 had no apparent effect on public perception of drinking water safety in 2002. Perceived drinking water safety is primarily related to water taste, odour, and clarity rather than socio-economic or demographic characteristics.


This suggests that household perceptions of drinking water safety in South Africa follow similar patterns to those observed in studies in developed countries. The stability over time in public perception of drinking water safety is particularly surprising, given the large cholera outbreak that took place at the start of this period.

Household survey; Water safety; Drinking water; Water quality; Consumer perception; South Africa; Cholera