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South Africa faces a dire water deficit, but new technology and improved laws can save us


Sabine Dall’Omo is the CEO of Siemens sub-Saharan Africa.

The private sector can play a pivotal role in South Africa’s ambitious goals to vastly improve water quality, leak detection, wastewater treatment, desalination, infrastructure management, revenue collection and reduction of non-revenue water by 2040.

Water conservation is an ongoing crisis in South Africa. We need to wake up to the fact that South Africa is steering towards a water deficit of 17% by 2030. If we carry on with business as usual and ignore the dysfunctionality and disrepair in our water systems, our region will suffer for years to come.

Today, 60% of the country’s rivers are overexploited, 40% of its wastewater is untreated, and untold volumes of water are lost to leaks in ageing infrastructure and exploitation from agriculture and manufacturing.

Currently, of the 824 water treatment works in the country, only 50% are operational, with 30% in a critical state and 20% in a poor state. These challenges – and their solutions – are unpacked in the new Siemens Pictures of Transformation 2040 report.

It would be easy, even tempting, to broadly say it is the government’s problem. There are many stakeholders in the governance structure of water, including provincial and local utilities. To unlock the solutions we need by 2040, we need clear water legislation and advanced digital technologies for water management.

Drastically upgraded water laws and digitalisation to detect and manage issues in our water systems can dramatically improve water conservation by 2040. These two elements can lay the groundwork for other things we need for systemic improvements, such as funding, education, incentives, policing and more.

Legislation and governance

Water management and security will become major and heavily legislated issues in South Africa by 2040. By then, more laws governing water rights, privileges and protections ought to be in place, and heavy users will be forced to curb and clean up their water use.

We can’t solve the challenges facing South Africa’s water and sewerage systems and ensure effective conservation without legislation that enables holistic and forward-looking collaborative strategies from all three tiers of government and the private sector. Refined legislation should bring out the strengths of these parties and attract investment for the research and innovation they want to do.

The legislative upgrades we need for water transformation and sustainability include:

  • Climate change adaptation strategies must be encoded to help society cope with weather changes;
  • Legislation must encourage community participation in water management decisions, promoting public awareness, education and a sense of responsibility;
  • Legislation should enable strategic investments in water infrastructure for the development and maintenance of efficient water treatment facilities and distribution systems;
  • Stronger water management laws will foster better coordination between various levels of government and enhance enforcement mechanisms; and
  • Revisions in water allocation policies should prioritise fair and sustainable distribution and emphasise transparency and accountability in water rights.

We also need stringent enforcement of water quality standards, with penalties for pollution and proactive contamination prevention measures. In addition, we must integrate water considerations into land-use planning laws to prevent soil erosion, reduce pollution runoff and protect water sources.

Adjusting water pricing policies to reflect the true value of water can incentivise responsible use, help fund infrastructure projects and discourage wasteful practices. Legislative support for research and innovation in water management technologies will also contribute to the development of more efficient and sustainable solutions.

But of course, water is not just a country issue. Rain clouds and rivers don’t know national borders. This is why cross-border cooperation must be facilitated through strengthened legal frameworks for shared water management with neighbouring countries.

The legislative process should involve stakeholders, experts and the public to ensure comprehensive and effective changes. Regular monitoring and periodic reviews of interregional legislation will be necessary to adapt to evolving challenges and opportunities, ultimately securing water-resilient future generations.

At a national level, the government should take the lead in formulating and enforcing progressive water management policies and set the overarching framework for sustainable water practices across the country.

Provincial governments in turn must implement effective water resource management strategies tailored to the specific needs and challenges of each province. On the local level, oversight of legal compliance within municipalities is critical. Too many municipalities have failed to uphold the country’s water laws – but technology-led project, infrastructure and data management systems can help.

Multisectoral collaborations need to help transform the state of water conservation in South Africa. The Water Partnership Office established in 2023 also has the potential to successfully accelerate water and sanitation infrastructure delivery across the country by 2040.

Beyond complying with regulations, the private sector needs to play its part by investing in and adopting innovative technologies, such as AI-powered solutions and Internet of Things (IoT) devices to enhance water efficiency in industrial processes.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Billions down the SA big-city revenue drain as 40% of purified water is lost to pipe leaks

By forging strategic partnerships with government entities, the private sector can contribute not only financially but also by sharing expertise and fostering innovation in sustainable water management practices. This synergy creates a dynamic, technology-driven conservation ecosystem.

Many exciting technologies are at our disposal to drastically improve water conservation. Satellites, drones, robotic crawlers, sensors and other IoT technologies can be deployed to monitor water and sewerage pipelines and reservoirs for problems such as leaks. Smart meters can improve municipal water readings, revenue collection, non-revenue reduction and future demand calculations.

Updated legislation is expected to further drive the adoption of smart technologies such as these to improve water quality and conservation.

The private sector can play a pivotal role in South Africa’s ambitious goals to vastly improve water quality, leak detection, wastewater treatment, desalination, infrastructure management, revenue collection and reduction of non-revenue water by 2040.

Through the integration of sophisticated sensors into water treatment plants and distribution systems, we can enable continuous monitoring of water quality parameters, while artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms analyse real-time data to swiftly detect anomalies or potential issues.

We’ve already done this successfully in places like Yorkshire in the UK, where AI is combating pollution and detecting leaks, and in Northumbria, where smart water meters are helping detect household leaks.

Yes, with the rise in automation, some unskilled jobs in the water sector will be lost, but more highly skilled and technical jobs that go hand-in-hand with the wielding of more advanced technology, will become prevalent by 2040 – and that’s not a bad thing for the economy.

When it comes to incentives for better water conservation by 2040, we foresee the industrial and mining sectors being enticed by carrots (rather than just being punished with sticks) to recycle and reuse their water.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Lesotho Highlands Water Project won’t fix Gauteng’s infrastructure and supply woes, experts warn

We also need allocated funds for the development and maintenance of water infrastructure, including treatment plants and distribution systems.

Implementing educational programmes within communities to promote water conservation and responsible water use is also key to long-term sustainability.

Public-private partnerships can give birth to new joint initiatives for water conservation and sustainable water management in South Africa. Encouraging data sharing between government agencies, private companies, academia and other research institutions can facilitate evidence-based decision-making.

All of this can spawn an actively engaged water management ecosystem that will ultimately give rise to healthier communities and protected natural environments. Once we have this in place, worrying water deficits will become a thing of the past. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • EK SÊ says:

    Why must the private sector pay twice for the government failures?What happened to water awareness & education in our schools?
    What’s wrong in getting water management experts from Israel on board?
    We keep destroying the future,thinking we’re “correcting” the past.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Sorry, but there’s no point in bothering reading what someone from a firm that is involved with fracking has to say.

    The very idea that fracking has even been suggested in a dry country like South Africa – in the Karoo for heaven’s sake! – tells me that this lady’s worries about there not being enough water might have some relevance to her company’s interest?

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