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How can we fix SA’s water challenges?

By Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem Africa

JOHANNESBURG and its surrounding cities have experienced population growth of over 400% since 1950. Gauteng, the country’s smallest province, is also its most populated at 13 million people. And specific communities, such as Soshanguve and Rustenburg, have grown over 2 500% in the past 70 years, according to UN data. 

Recently, taps ran dry in Johannesburg even though nearby dams were full. Water authorities said that high consumption rates are a problem and noted the negative impact of loadshedding on pumping operations. But other views identify a much wider range of problems relating to infrastructure and management woes.

Two areas stand out where we can act quickly: infrastructure maintenance and non-revenue water. Both can benefit from advancements in the water industry, using retrofitted solutions that can increase the lifespan of current pipelines, pumping stations and other water infrastructure.

Digital Maintenance 

Digital maintenance systems significantly enrich our understanding of what is happening in water infrastructure. Such systems identify maintenance issues and rate their risk levels, gather accurate and even real-time usage data, monitor pump performance and power consumption, and generate reports for different needs such as strategic planning and capacity development. 

The data revolution opens new doors for three reasons. First, cheap yet robust sensors can retrofit onto existing equipment, allowing water operators to selectively sweat certain assets longer (and new systems also integrate with existing sensors and SCADA operations). Second, the leading digital maintenance systems provide unified ‘single view’ dashboards for a big picture that experts can use to dig into specific areas. And the third is mobility: such data dashboards work in operations centres, office computers, and in the field on phones and tablets. 

Even at the early stages, the insights generated by data help forge clear direction and strategies to get more from infrastructure, fix problems and prevent damage before it occurs.

 Non-Revenue Water 

South Africa’s non-revenue water rate is staggering: 41 percent compared to the global average of 15 percent. Non-revenue water is any water pumped into a distribution system that goes to waste before being used or is consumed but not recuperated financially. Ultimately, municipalities take the losses – an opportunity for the precarious financial position of many South African towns and cities.

We can address non-revenue water in several ways, including public education and improved meter reading. But leaks are the lowest-hanging fruit, accounting for the vast majority of lost water. It can take crews hours – even days – to reach a leak and fix it, and all the time in between is water – and money – down the drain. 

The aforementioned data-driven systems are proficient at identifying flow rate and pressure changes in pipes that indicate leaks. A more futuristic example is using sound to pinpoint all sizes of leaks and structural weaknesses that will burst. Acoustic balls are little technological marvels that travel down pipes, achieving this task in a fraction of the time it would traditionally consume. The ability to detect, fix and even stop leaks before they happen is considerably more powerful today than ever before.

 Fixing SA’s water 

Fixing SA’s water will require investment and collaboration. Fortunately, water technologies are in an excellent position to realise both ambitions. Data-driven maintenance and quick leak detection join innovations such as energy-efficient pumps, low-chemical water treatment, high-efficiency irrigation, and water capture and recycling systems. 

No single action will improve the situation. But through several interventions – many being much more affordable and flexible today thanks to technological advancements – we can secure South Africa’s most valuable natural resource.

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