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Q&A: Ask an expert – Addressing SA’s water challenges

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In many parts of Africa and the world, hundreds of millions of people still lack access to clean and safe drinking water. Among the worst affected are those living in urban areas where population growth and rapid urbanisation are outstripping already inadequate infrastructure. When considering large investments in alternative water supplies, the costs need to be weighed against not only the cost of drought but also from diminished economic activity that a prolonged and severe drought can cause. We spoke to ABB’s Clayton Duckworth to learn about how  cloud-based IT coupled with smart flow-measurement devices make it possible to locate leaks and faults by analysing data from a water network and using statistical algorithms to detect anomalies. Contact him at clayton.duckworth@za.abb.com

Clayton Duckworth

What are the common water infrastructure challenges faced by South Africa?

Population growth and water scarcity, which is exacerbated during times of drought, have placed increased strain on water resource and water supply infrastructure. Up to 35% of our clean drinking water is lost due to leaks in aging infrastructure. There are operational issues around project funding and the financial management of infrastructure projects which filters down to projects not being executed properly, leading to poor quality pipelines and infrastructure management. Another key challenge is the need our local market has for improved technical skills to maintain, grow and especially plan our infrastructure. When it comes to planning infrastructure, this is a very niche skill.

What caused these challenges and could they have been avoided?

The causes are vast and include a ballooning population constantly utilising infrastructure that is being insufficiently maintained. There is the challenge of poor asset management and governance which has often led to the mismanagement of funding. There is most importantly, a lack of technical skills whose knock-off effect has led to infrastructure projects being more complex. In terms of whether or not these could have been avoided, everything starts and ends with financing. Government has made a pledge that in 2019, water projects will be prioritised, but it all comes down to managing that funding correctly and ensuring that the right hands, with the right expertise are implementing the projects. Companies with the end-to-end solutions that ABB provides can be leveraged as we have the capabilities in place to assist and impart the knowledge required.

Are there any places with similar challenges? How were they overcome?

Most developing countries across African face the similar challenges. We have a good case study in India, where they are using advanced technology to meter the water through their pipelines and to monitor leaks and all information received through the meter is fed back to a control centre where the data is analysed. The objective is to achieve a significant reduction in water wastage and lower rates of non-revenue water (NRW). A high-performance leakage management solution was required in the immediate term, but it also had to be future-proof and have the technical capability to meet the expanding needs of city’s water consumption – which it did.

What knock-on effects/threats does a threatened water supply pose?

There are forecasts of a 17% gap between supply and demand of water within the next 10 years. This is calculated based on our current rates of population growth and how our infrastructure is performing at the moment as well as our plans to grow it. These rates could change, as they are very dynamic. In essence, though, this will have an influence on South Africa’s economic and social sustainability.

What can be done to solve challenges regarding SA’s water supply?

We need a change in management systems coupled with increased funding and effective financial management to ensure that water infrastructure projects are delivered. We also need to focus on developing technical skills within the sector and leverage technology to efficiently manage, operate, monitor and maintain South Africa’s infrastructure. Most importantly, the country at large needs to be educated on the importance of water and how to use it wisely for future sustainability.

How does drought and heavy rain affect SA’s water infrastructure?

Weather conditions put pressure on our dams and ground water resources, which in turn lead to added pressure on infrastructure such as dam walls and drainage systems. We need more efficient and effective management systems to measure, monitor, maintain and restrict water during these periods. From our point of view, we can mitigate the impact by managing this through measurement, monitoring and maintenance.

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