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Confronting South Africa’s water crisis starts with conserving the water we already have

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Kerusha Lutchmiah is a Senior Water Consultant for Royal HaskoningDHV, an independent, international engineering and project management consultancy with 140 years of experience and 6,000 colleagues across the globe.

As the 30th driest country in the world, South Africa has to ensure that it’s not losing what little water it already has. Maintaining and repairing our water assets has to be our first priority — every water reuse decision and action flows from there.

South Africa is a leaking bucket. South African Water Chamber CEO Benoît Le Roy made this clear at the recent Water Institute of Southern Africa (Wisa) Water Reuse Symposium. Ours is a water-scarce country, and yet between 40 and 45% of our water is non-revenue water.

This means that almost half of this critical resource is being lost to leakages, burst water pipes, theft and operational challenges before it reaches the public. Global best practice puts this figure substantially lower, at 15%.

Le Roy’s point was that, as the 30th driest country in the world, South Africa has to ensure, first and foremost, that it’s not losing what little water it already has. Maintaining and repairing our water assets has to be our first priority — every water reuse decision and action flows from there.

There are many reasons behind South Africa’s non-revenue issue. The country’s water infrastructure expanded after 1994 to reach people who had been denied access to this basic human right during apartheid. The urgency of the issue at the time, however, led to a largely rushed response, and many legacy infrastructure issues remain in place today. Budgetary constraints, mismanagement, corruption, pollution, and population growth are among the many other contributing factors.

How do we go about mending this metaphorical leaking bucket? What steps do we put in place to improve our water reuse process as we endeavour to resolve South Africa’s water crisis? With multiple causes at play, it’s clear that the solution needs to be similarly multifaceted.

A digital-first approach

South Africa has world-class capabilities in terms of water management knowledge, skills and resources. We have the engineering expertise and technological tools required to meet the country’s demands. It’s a matter of implementing them well and maintaining them consistently — activities that are, of course, not without their difficulties.

Digitisation has an important role to play here. We need to ensure that we are prioritising accurate, reliable and effective monitoring and forecasting systems. This means introducing tools that use artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of things, sensors and digital twins to detect leaks and bursts, digitally assess pipes, and issue notifications in real-time.

With digital-first solutions in hand — and with staff trained to use them effectively — we’re better able to observe and act on changes in water quantity and quality, shifting pressures in pipelines and distribution systems, and variations in consumption, overconsumption, and wastage. As a result, our approach to water reuse becomes increasingly proactive, rather than reactive, and we’re more likely to save every drop we can.

Personal and public accountability

How we view accountability for water is another critical factor. Water conservation and reuse is both a local and national government responsibility, and a civic duty.

Municipalities need to be held to account. Any instances of substandard infrastructure, supply and quality need to be acknowledged, addressed, and prevented from occurring again. Digital innovations are important here, too, as they aid transparency and fuel action by ensuring decision-makers have the right information at their fingertips.

Most of our metros are water insecure, except Cape Town, which managed to regain a foothold only after it nearly hit Day Zero. The collective goodwill that was fostered during this time was astounding and demonstrated how South Africans can come together for a common cause. This personal accountability needs to spread to other cities and provinces if we are to make meaningful changes. Close collaboration with the media is essential.

A holistic perspective

In my presentation at the symposium, I stressed the importance of a strong, functioning, multifaceted approach to water conservation, reuse and quality. We need to ensure that our facilities are run ethically and effectively, that experts are using appropriate tools to gather the most valuable insights, that we’re educating people, and that we’re improving and optimising our processes over time.

Part of this involves understanding how water reuse integrates with other challenges in South Africa. Load shedding, of course, is a critical issue that has far-reaching implications — including on water. Pumping accounts for as much as 67% of the energy used to operate a typical municipal water and wastewater treatment facility. Without electricity, these systems start to fail, and water can’t be pumped, purified or distributed reliably. This can have serious implications for the economy, public health and the environment.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Climate change and South Africa’s water woes — an urgent call to community action

I believe we need to look at South Africa’s water use crisis holistically. Mending the leaking bucket isn’t going to happen overnight. But through concerted, deliberate efforts, we can start to inch our way towards a sustainable approach to water reuse. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Of course,Duh! We have a conference to discover that? But what about wilfully incompetent governance?

  • Peter Doble says:

    Many countries suffer from scarce water. Planning and managing its retention and useage is the key. What SA lacks, now and historically – as with so many fundamentals – is comprehensive, integrated foresight.

  • Michele Rivarola says:

    Either than Cape Town (an exception even by worldwide standards) water losses exceed 1/3 of treated water yet rather than investing in fixing the sieves which we call pipelines we invest in desalination plants, new water treatment plants and increasing the capacity of existing treatment works because it is simpler than maintaining what we already have and ensuring that it is being operated at maximum efficiency.

  • Geoff Coles says:

    Nothing new here, but explained intelligently, such as it is.

    What is though the relevance of being the 30th driest country in the world.

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