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SA’s water security update – have the “chickens” finally come home to roost?

By Benoît Le Roy, CEO of the SA Water Chamber.

WHILST writing this short opinion piece our country was subjected to Stage 6 load shedding with planned outages of between eleven to fourteen hours daily, mostly in business hours and peak times. The consequences are serious in water terms as we need electricity to pump bulk water to our cities and to distribute the water to industrial, commercial, households and government facilities. On the return side we need electricity to pump sewage from city collection networks to treatment systems to keep our living and working areas sanitised. 

This level of blackouts causes water and sanitation systems to fail as they are designed to operate 24/7 and not 10/7 hours. 

The Nelson Mandela Bay Metro has suffered the near onset of Day Zero with business already suffering nearly a decade of unreliable water services; business, active citizenry and national government have tried their best to little avail and with some rains alleviating the disastrous situation somewhat, so no real and effective human interventions. Having said all this, where are we at with our water security strategy and implementation despite the energy crisis?

The last ministerial update was quite positive given institutional stabilisation of DWS and a very successful Water Summit held in March of this year. However, very little if any real progress in implementing our water security is visible and the Ethekwini flood disaster persists with closed beaches due to sewage infrastructure not being reinstated due to an apparent shortage of R20 billion according to the unicity mayor who made is clear that the city does not have the funds and is wating for a national government bailout but national government coffers are also dry.

The NWRSIII, National Water Resource Strategy III, draft was gazetted end of July for public comment and is a very encouraging draft strategy for several reasons. The first of them is the one of PSP, Private Sector Participation, that the minister has made very clear in public here and at the recent International Water Conference in Stockholm earlier in September where the global leaders, influencers and technical specialist gather to share their updates. In SA we need to find ways of simplifying our complex water value chain architecture to start implementing some of the required initiatives supported largely by private sector resources.

The second encouraging theme is that of digitisation of the water value chain. Why is this encouraging? It’s the fastest growing sub-sector in water even before the pandemic but firmly put on the agenda since the pandemic as it enables the targeted management of assets and drives asset delivery efficiencies without necessarily attracting concomitant hardware implementation. 

In the medium-term digitisation also enhances more efficient targeted capital projects where digital efficiencies have been maximised whilst reducing the human and carbon intensities of managing the infrastructure. Regulatory functions can also be simplified and managed in real time through digital twins and through DTL, Distributed Ledger Technology, resulting in immutable and more transparent transactions that make water infrastructure project easier to fund and inculcates transparency and trust between stakeholders.

Benoît Le Roy has forty years of water engineering experience and is the CEO and co-founder of the South African Water Chamber – established to represent the private water infrastructure sector to collaborate with and assist government to implement the national water and sanitation master plan; he is also a founding director of Nexus Water Alchemy and Water Ledger South Africa, both incorporated South African companies at the leading edge of the nexus of water digitisation. This will not only be key in reindustrialising the water sector, but it will also provide a myriad of skilled jobs and the opportunity to again export water related products and expertise globally. 

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