The assessment of water quality has turned to be an ultimate goal for most water resource and environmental stakeholders, with ever-increasing global consideration. Against this backdrop, various tools and water quality guidelines have been adopted worldwide to govern water quality deterioration and institute the sustainable use of water resources. Water quality impairment is mainly associated with a sudden increase in population and related proceedings, which include urbanization, industrialization and agricultural production, among others. Such socio-economic activities accelerate water contamination and cause pollution stress to the aquatic environment. Scientifically based water quality index (WQI) models are then essentially important to measure the degree of contamination and advise whether specific water resources require restoration and to what extent. Such comprehensive evaluations reflect the integrated impact of adverse parameter concentrations and assist in the prioritization of remedial actions. WQI is a simple, yet intelligible and systematically structured, indexing scale beneficial for communicating water quality data to non-technical individuals, policymakers and, more importantly, water scientists. The index number is normally presented as a relative scale ranging from zero (worst quality) to one hundred (best quality). WQIs simplify and streamline what would otherwise be impractical assignments, thus justifying the efforts of developing water quality indices (WQIs). Generally, WQIs are not designed for broad applications; they are customarily developed for specific watersheds and/or regions, unless different basins share similar attributes and test a comparable range of water quality parameters. Their design and formation are governed by their intended use together with the degree of accuracy required, and such technicalities ultimately define the application boundaries of WQIs. This is perhaps the most demanding scientific need—that is, to establish a universal water quality index (UWQI) that can function in most, if not all, the catchments in South Africa. In cognizance of such a need, this study attempts to provide an index that is not limited to certain application boundaries, with a contribution that is significant not only to the authors, but also to the nation at large. The proposed WQI is based on the weighted arithmetic sum method, with parameters, weight coefficients and sub-index rating curves established through expert opinion in the form of the participation-based Rand Corporation’s Delphi Technique and extracts from the literature. UWQI functions with thirteen explanatory variables, which are NH3
, Ca, Cl, Chl-a, EC, F, CaCO3
, Mg, Mn, NO3
, pH, SO4
and turbidity (NTU). Based on the model validation analysis, UWQI is considered robust and technically stable, with negligible variation from the ideal values. Moreover, the prediction pattern corresponds to the ideal graph with comparable index scores and identical classification grades, which signifies the readiness of the model to appraise water quality status across South African watersheds. The research article intends to substantiate the methods used and document the results achieved.
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