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20 July 2018 Photo Leonie Bolleurs
Research informs about sustainable use of fresh water for food production
Conducting research on the topic of water-footprint assessment, are from the left: Dr Enoch Owusu-Sekyere, Dr Henry Jordaan, study leader and Senior Lecturer in the UFS Department of Agricultural Economics, Dr Frikkie Maré (Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics), and Adetoso Adetoro.

The fact that South Africa is a water-scarce country has been highlighted during the past couple of years, and even city dwellers were suddenly very aware of the drought due to the strict water restrictions. These are the words of Dr Frikkie Maré, Head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and one of the graduates who received his PhD on water-footprint assessment studies at the recent June 2018 graduations.

The department is currently involved in various water-footprint and water-management research projects which assist in providing solutions for better water management in the future. “As department, we want to be at the forefront of research that will assist all agricultural producers with sustainable production practices to ensure economic, environmental, and social sustainable food and fibre products for the society at large,” said Dr Maré.

Research funded by Water Research Commission

The UFS recently conferred two PhD degrees (Drs Enoch Owusu-Sekyere and Frikkie Maré) and one master’s degree (Adetoso Adetoro) in the Department of Agricultural Economics. All three have been working in the field of water-footprint assessment. The research formed part of two different projects that were initiated and funded by the Water Research Commission.

According to Dr Henry Jordaan, Senior Lecturer in this department, four of his students already received their master’s degrees on the topic of water-footprint assessment, while two students are busy with PhDs and three more are working on their master’s degrees.

Topic gains momentum in research community
The water-footprint concept serves as a useful indicator to sensitise society about the impact of the food we eat on scarce freshwater resources – from agricultural producers using water to produce primary food crops and products on the farm, to the end consumer buying the food products in the retail store in town.

“Water-footprint assessment is a relatively new field aimed at informing the sustainable use of fresh water for food production. This topic is gaining momentum in the research community, given the substantial increase in the global population in the context of freshwater resources that is getting increasingly scarce. The challenge is to feed the growing population while still using the scarce freshwater resources sustainably.

Volume of water used to produce food

“In order to inform water users on how to use the resource sustainably, it is important to know the volume of water that was used to produce the required food products. Through our research, we are contributing to this knowledge by assessing the volume of water that was used to produce selected products, and to interpret the water use in the context of water availability to gain insight into the degree of sustainability with which the resource is used. The results are expected to inform water users, water managers, and policy makers regarding the sustainable use of fresh water for food production,” said Dr Jordaan.

News Archive

Bloemfontein's quality of tap water compares very favourably with bottled water

The quality of the drinking water of five suburbs in Bloemfontein is at least as good as or better than bottled water. This is the result of a standard and chemical bacterial analysis done by the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Centre for Environmental Management in collaboration with the Institute for Groundwater Studies (IGS).

Five samples were taken from tap water sources in the suburbs of Universitas, Brandwag, Bain’s Vlei, Langenhoven Park and Bayswater and 15 samples were taken of different brands of still and unflavoured bottled water. The samples were analysed at the laboratory of the IGS, while the interpretation of the analysis was done by the Centre for Environmental Management.

“We wanted to evaluate the difference in quality for human consumption between tap water and that of the different brands of bottled water,” said Prof. Maitland Seaman, Head of the Centre for Environmental Management.

“With the exception of two samples produced by multinational companies at their plants in South Africa, the different brands of bottled water used for the study were produced by South African companies, including a local small-scale Bloemfontein producer,” said Prof. Seaman.

According to the labels, the sources of the water vary from pure spring water, to partial reverse osmosis (as an aid to standardise salt, i.e. mineral, content), to only reverse osmosis (to remove salts). (Reverse osmosis is a process in which water is forced under pressure through a pipe with minute pores through which water passes but no – or very low concentrations of – salts pass.)

According to Prof. Seaman, the analysis revealed some interesting findings, such as:

• It is generally accepted that drinking water should have an acceptable level of salt content, as the body needs salts. Most mineral contents were relatively higher in the tap water samples than the bottled water samples and were very much within the acceptable range of drinkable water quality. One of the bottled samples, however, had a very low mineral content, as the water was produced by reverse osmosis, as stated on the bottle. While reverse osmosis is used by various producers, most producers use it as an aid, not as a single method to remove nearly all the salts. Drinking only such water over a prolonged period may probably have a negative effect on the human physiology.

• The pH values of the tap water samples (8,12–8,40) were found to be slightly higher (slightly alkaline), like in all south-eastern Free State rivers (from where the water is sourced) than the pH of most of the bottled water samples, most of which are sourced and/or treated in other areas. Two brands of bottled water were found to have relatively low pH levels (both 4,5, i.e. acidic) as indicated on their bottles and as confirmed by the IGS analysis. The health implication of this range of pH is not significant.

• The analysis showed differences in the mineral content given on the labels of most of the water bottles compared to that found by IGS analysis. The possibility of seasonal fluctuation in content, depending on various factors, is expected and most of the bottling companies also indicate this on their labels. What was a rather interesting finding was that two pairs of bottled water brands claimed exactly the same mineral content but appeared under different brand names and were also priced differently. In each case, one of the pair was a well-known house brand, and the other obviously the original producer. In one of these paired cases, the house brand stated that the water was spring water, while the other (identical) “original” brand stated that it was spring water treated by reverse osmosis and oxygen-enriched.

• Nitrate (NO3) levels were uniformly low except in one bottled sample, suggesting a low (non-threatening) level of organic pollution in the source water. Otherwise, none of the water showed any sign of pollution.

• The bacterial analysis confirmed the absence of any traces of coliforms or E.coli in any of the samples, as was also indicated by the bottling companies. This is very reassuring. What is not known is how all these waters were sterilised, which could be anything from irradiation to chlorine or ozone treatment.

• The price of the different brands of bottled water, each containing 500 ml of still water, ranged between R3,99 and R8,99, with R5,03 being the average price. A comparison between the least expensive and the most expensive bottles of water indicated no significant difference in quality. In fact, discrepancies were observed in the most expensive bottle in that the amount of Calcium (Ca) claimed to be present in it was found to be significantly different from what the analysis indicated (29,6 mg/l versus 0,92 mg/l). The alkalinity (CaCO3 mg/l) indicated on the bottle was also found to differ considerably (83 mg/l versus 9,4 mg/l). The concentration of Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) was not given on the product.

“The preference for bottled water as compared to Bloemfontein’s tap water from a qualitative perspective as well as the price discrepancy is unjustifiable. The environmental footprint of bottled water is also large. Sourcing, treating, bottling, packaging and transporting, to mention but a few of the steps involved in the processing of bottled water, entail a huge carbon footprint, as well as a large water footprint, because it also requires water for treating and rinsing to process bottled water,” said Prof. Seaman.

Media Release
Lacea Loader
Deputy Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
3 August 2009


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