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Water shedding is our next big challenge, but it can be prevented if we tackle the causes now

Water shedding is our next big challenge, but it can be prevented if we tackle the causes now
A visitor takes water for a her nephew who is a patient at KwaMhlanga Hospital on June 19, 2015 in KwaMhlanga, South Africa. (Photo by Thulani Mbele/Sowetan/Gallo Images)

Urgent action is needed to address South Africa’s water supply vulnerabilities. Solutions must include closing the taps on leaks, addressing our power challenges, and ring-fencing water income for improving water infrastructure.

Water shortages are a serious and persistent threat for South Africans, with cuts becoming an all-too-regular reality, particularly for residents of our most populous province, Gauteng.

The problem is compounded by the fact that up to 40% of water in our municipalities is lost owing to leaks, according to data released by the Water Research Commission (WRC) back in 2013. It’s unclear whether this situation has improved or not in recent years, but it is an indicator of the urgent need to address creaking water infrastructure in our country.

A recent study published by Nature Sustainability has also revealed that in South Africa water consumption is highly unequal with the wealthy, minority elites consuming far more than the poor. According to the study, if the water consumption pattern of the wealthy persists, it could lead to even more frequent water cuts in urban areas.

Further compounding this problem is the impact that rolling blackouts and other power cuts are having on water pumping stations and their ability to properly distribute this precious resource. In Gauteng, for example, the dams feeding these pumping stations might be over 90% full at the moment, but the failures in our distribution system mean that the water isn’t getting to the reservoirs, and ultimately the population.

All of this is not only putting a strain on our communities, but also critical services such as hospitals and clinics. Just last month, Heidelberg Hospital in Gauteng had to suspend several of its health services because of water shortages in that area.

According to experts from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), the delivery of quality healthcare requires adequate supplies of clean running water in order to ensure hygienically clean and safe environments in hospitals and clinics.

A key aspect behind infection prevention and control programmes is hand hygiene and this requires hand wash stations with water, soap and clean towels.

With all this considered, how do we then start to meaningfully tackle this challenge of diminished water supply through leaks and power cuts?

From an engineering perspective, there are three immediate actions that authorities can take to address this problem.

Closing the taps on leaks

Properly measuring water losses and quantifying them is crucial. We need to look more closely at the difference between the network input and output of our water distribution systems to understand where losses are taking place and how we can fix them. There are technologies today that can detect and locate leaks and bursts using highly accurate artificial intelligence (AI) prediction within zones.

The quality of pipelines must be monitored regularly, and those pipelines must be replaced after their lifespan ends. Where breakages in pipelines do occur, they must be properly checked to prevent further breakages. Focussing on restoring the efficiency of dilapidated infrastructure before spending on new infrastructure is key.

Furthermore, our municipalities must become better at monitoring high water pressure on our water systems. Water pressure is a critical component of any water distribution system. High water pressure can lead to leaks, burst pipes, and other damages to the infrastructure. To mitigate these problems, it is crucial to manage water pressure effectively.

This can be achieved through various measures, including the use of pressure-reducing valves and pressure regulators, monitoring and adjusting water pressure levels regularly, and identifying and repairing leaks promptly.

Getting communities involved

Communities must be educated on the importance of quickly attending to leaks on their property and reporting leaks to relevant authorities. A toll-free number or a free-to-use mobile app for reporting major leaks is a good idea for example. Smart water meters installed in homes can provide alerts to residential users about when leaks occur. For households that can’t afford plumbers, local authorities should fund a dedicated team of plumbers who can go from house to house in lower-income areas to help repair leaks.

Addressing power challenges

Power cuts have also impacted water supplies, particularly in Gauteng. Increasing the capacity of conveyance infrastructure and storage capacity of these facilities can limit the duration of pumping times. For instance, bulk supply pipelines might be sized to pump for 20 hours a day, but increasing this capacity might be able to reduce pumping time to 16 hours a day. This is an option but potentially more costly.

Local authorities can go one step further by ring-fencing water income to provide more funds for maintenance and replacement of infrastructure. Income from water must strictly be used for water projects.

Urgent action is needed to address the issue of water vulnerabilities. The suggested solutions, including closing the taps on leaks, getting communities involved, addressing power challenges, and ring-fencing water income, can go a long way in ensuring a sustainable water supply for all South Africans.

The Department of Water and Sanitation, local municipalities, and water boards also need the best-qualified engineers and technologists to work together to ensure the efficient management of this finite resource and its infrastructure. This must be a top priority as experts in this field can help in a meaningful way to start addressing the problems that we’re increasingly facing in many parts of our country.

For the good of all of us, we must act now, before we add “water shedding” to our daily vocabulary and its consequences to our already stretched public health systems. DM

Bonga Ntuli is an Executive Board Member & Director of Strategy and Digital Services at Royal HaskoningDHV Southern Africa. Royal HaskoningDHV is an independent engineering company founded in the Netherlands in 1881, with offices in southern Africa since 1922.

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