Could towing an iceberg to Cape Town help solve future water problems?

Every time South Africa suffers a serious drought, it doesn’t take long for someone to suggest that an iceberg should be towed from Antarctica to be tapped as a water source. It sounds laughably outlandish, but a company in the United Arab Emirates claims that it is undertaking the task in 2018 in order to alleviate the UAE’s water shortages. Could the same thing work for South Africa?


Water crisis can be good for business

As the water crisis intensifies‚ South African companies are working furiously to meet demand for smart water restrictors.

Durban-based Utility Systems‚ which has supplied the Cape Town municipality with about 300‚000 devices over the last 10 years‚ is now producing 35‚000 water management devices a month.

The company‚ which developed their first device in a garage‚ has close to 1.4-million of the devices connected around the world‚ including parts of Africa‚ South America‚ the Middle East‚ the Far East and New Zealand.

The water management device is a remote communicating electronic water control valve. The smart meter allows water flow limitation and is able to provide prepaid water metering‚ automated meter reading and leaks and tamper detection.

Managing director Peter Rodseth quit his job as a lawyer to invest in the device proposed in the mid-1990s by a client.

"I liked the idea‚ invested some money and commercialised it. It was the first prepaid water system in the world. Initially it was used as a prepaid system‚ but that business was sold off in 1999. I then started this business in 2001. Initially prepaid was not widely used here but in the last 10 years it has taken off. The whole world is moving towards smart meters. Water is a huge focus globally‚" said Rodseth.

"We supply about 60 municipalities in South Africa. Cape Town is our biggest customer‚ with Durban not far behind. We are building 35‚000 devices a month and want to get to 100‚000 capacity to meet the growing orders‚" he said.

He said the company's team of engineers continue to work on improving the product to make it adaptable to different climates and radio frequencies.

Rodseth said the device has been used as a flow limitation device for consumers who are in arrears.

"It was a way to restrict consumers' consumption and is now being installed at more homes‚ especially in Cape Town‚ to get consumers to bring their consumption down due to the drought‚" he said.

Xanthea Limberg‚ Cape Town's mayoral committee member for informal settlements‚ water and waste services and energy‚ said there were currently about 231‚000 water management devices installed across the city.

Limberg said it also served as an early warning system for leaks on a property.

"The city also makes use of the device when restricting customers due to unpaid accounts‚ and provides it to indigent customers to help them avoid finding themselves in debt. Although every programme has its challenges‚ the water management device is an integral part of the City of Cape Town Water Conservation and Water Demand Management Strategy. This strategy was internationally recognised for its success at the 2015 C40 Cities Awards‚ where it was acknowledged as the best in the world in terms of preparing the city for the possible challenges of climate change‚" said Limberg.

According to management of iLembe District Municipality‚ in northern KwaZulu-Natal‚ 21‚821 of the devices have been installed in the region.

"The municipality is currently conducting an assessment which will inform whether or not more similar devices should be installed bearing in mind that some areas within the district currently have limited water supply.

"Implementation of credit control processes by blocking consumers from purchasing remotely by percentage proportioning between consumption and servicing historical debt has yielded positive results both to the municipality as well as to the consumers. This also assisted in curbing perpetual consumer debt increase."

Edwin Sibiya‚ chief executive of Pretoria-based company Lesira-Teq‚ who design‚ manufacture and supply smart metering systems globally‚ said smart metering technologies can make it possible for entities to achieve a lot more than just collecting revenue.

"It is the first step towards achieving control of consumption and builds a strong sense of conservation with end-users. The technology ensures data integrity and they can monitor and manage their water and electricity spend."

Among Lesira-Teq's products is the water management unit‚ which converts mechanical piston meters to smart meters and the water management device.

"It has the ability to set daily or weekly or monthly water or gas or electricity consumption limits with penalty warnings. It can detect a possible leak and burst pipe with automated notification‚" said Sibiya.

Sibiya said they supply corporates and private companies‚ gated and complex communities‚ utility management companies and municipalities.

"Because the water management device and water management unit technology is fairly new and was officially launched in July 2017‚ we are in discussions with various municipalities. Sales have been primarily in the domestic market with over a thousand sold. Most municipalities make use of our prepaid water meters. To date we have supplied and distributed more than 800‚000 units‚" said Sibiya.






How smart meters can save water in drought ridden Cape Town

The water crisis in South Africa’s Western Cape is cause for grave concern. Authorities are desperately trying to find new water sources, due to consumption not reducing to sustainable targets. In Cape Town and surrounds, users are limited to 87 litres per user per day. Dam levels are hovering around 34%, with around 10% of that not usable. In 2016, the dams were at 60%, and a few years ago at 100% and over at the same time of the year.

A key challenge affecting water consumption behaviour is the time lag between consumption and the related bill and the resolution of the information on the bill. It is difficult to know if one is complying with the 87 litres per day, and if not, why not. This is because water meters are usually read once a month, with a bill for specific consumption, for example a bath, usually arriving only a month or two after that water flowed through the tap. There is also a large disjunction between the single action of drawing water and the cumulative bill that arrives. This further complicates linking consumption patterns to resulting costs.

This way of billing is not only a South African phenomenon. Internationally, even in the United Kingdom, many homes either do not have water meters at all, or rely on manual meter readings. But in South Africa, it’s obviously more cause for concern, given the water constraints and recent drought.

Smart metering has the potential to address these challenges. Smart metering leverages recent advances in wireless and electronic technology to remotely record and report metering. It is mostly used for electricity and gas billing. Since water is such a basic commodity, it’s provided at such a low cost, occasionally even for free that it does not usually make financial sense to invest in smart water metering technologies for billing purposes.

Stellenbosch University have developed a smart meter that measures and reports water use by the minute. The objective, however, was not to perform billing, but to create awareness and to help people conserve water. This can be done through understanding how consumption patterns relate to water volumes used. Our thought was that users equipped with easy to understand water consumption information in real time will save more. We believed that the lack of behavioural change in water consumption is mostly because of a lack of knowledge instead of refusal to change patterns or lack of incentives.

But there are challenges associated with the smart meters. Since smart meters are normally used for billing purposes, and in some instances used to shut off the supply in a prepaid setup, they are generally not well received. Another challenge is that the information provided tends to be technical and not easy to understand. To overcome these challenges we set out to develop a solution that makes the information easy to digest, and to demonstrably show the behavioural impact of presenting this information to a range of consumers.

A smart meter that measures and reports water use by the minute.Author supplied

Creating awareness

They recorded the time from when a tap opens to when it closes an “event.” The first step to creating awareness, was to relate these events to specific times of the day, which allows the user to quantify specific water actions.

For example, the meter would capture a 75 litre event at 07:15 lasting for 4 minutes. From these events, the meter generates a daily itemised billing-type list of events for every day. This then allows the user to identify large or unintended events during the day. By relating the amount used to a money value, the user can associate a cost with each action.

But they don’t only make this information digestible for the general person. They break it down even more to make it understandable for little children at a local primary school using playing cards with usage information.

In addition to the meters being used to create awareness, these meters are a powerful tool when it comes to identifying infrastructure problems. They have used smart water meters to find leaks, bursts and to identify open taps and running toilets. Through automated text message and email notifications, the relevant people can be made aware of abnormal water patterns in an instant, allowing rapid response and significant savings.

Smart meters helped reduce the water consumption of a local coffee shop by 68% in one week. Author supplied


They have installed just under 50 of these smart water meters in the last few months. The results have been surprisingly positive.

In once case study on campus, they managed to reduce the water consumption of a local coffee shop by 68% in one week by only making the consumption information available online to the owner. We have seen similar results at homes, with reductions in consumption ranging between 40% and 60%.

But the biggest impact they have seen has been at schools. Through initial awareness and a swift response, significant amounts water was saved. An average of 16 kilolitres per school per day is already being saved at three local schools, with more opportunities for improvement. The monthly savings at one primary school is the equivalent of two junior teachers’ salaries.

In addition to the daily savings, the smart meters showed excessive water flowing when pipes bursts or irrigation systems were activated. By acting on this information within minutes, one school was able to prevent losses of around 1 million litres of water through a burst pipe in the middle of the school holidays.

If the schools in the Western Cape save a realistic average of 10 kilolitres per day, in excess of 15 megalitres would be saved per day in the province. That would be 13% of the target reduction.

The ConversationA key question is then maybe not how smart metering can be used to catch the bad heavy consumers, but rather how smart metering can be used to help those who need to do so.





Crisis puts waste water treatment under the spotlight

There are many opportunities for the treatment of waste water in South Africa, but the uptake of these opportunities has been slow, according to Carl Haycock, managing director of Talbot & Talbot, which offers expertise in the provision of sustainable water and wastewater solutions across Africa.

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