With rising populations and rapid urbanisation already putting pressure on SA’s water stress levels, the need has never been greater for operators to upgrade infrastructure, which is often ageing and lacking in modern monitoring and control. It is critical for the nation’s water industry to embrace automation and technology to obtain higher efficiencies from its infrastructure and operate smarter and more sustainably.    

The country received a big wake-up call two years ago when Cape Town came perilously close to being the first big global city to run out of drinkable water. The region was hit by one of the most severe droughts in living memory after a sustained period of low rainfall. This all transpired to put Cape Town on the brink of “day zero”, when the municipal water supply would be cut off.

If the scale of this mounting challenge was ever in doubt, stark figures dispel that. In 2019, 66% of the SA population lived in cities, and according to the World Wide Fund for Nature, demand is set to reach 17.7-billion cubic metres by 2030 — up from 13.4-billion cubic metres in 2016. Estimates from the SA government show that more than half of the wastewater treatment infrastructure is in poor or critical condition, with 11% of infrastructure dysfunctional. The picture is equally bleak regarding water treatment facilities, with 44% of infrastructure in poor or critical condition.

That such a proportion of the infrastructure is dysfunctional should be a red flag to everyone concerned. But the solution is not just improving the infrastructure; there needs to be significant investment to increase the capacity if the growing demand for clean water is to be met. Certainly, investment in more wastewater treatment plants would help, and there are new strategies from the department of water & sanitation with initiatives promoting desalination and water reuse.

Increasing efficiencies

It is not just consumers who will suffer if water is not managed sustainably — much of SA’s industry relies on water. In 2019, 2.5% of water was directed to mining, 3% to industrial use, 2% to power generation, 61% was taken up by agriculture and only about 27% for consumption for a population of more than 60-million.

Automation and digital technologies are key in supporting plant operators achieve efficiencies, optimising performance while reducing waste, but there is an urgent need for infrastructure upgrades. In terms of increasing efficiencies, integrated solutions are required, including automation, and electrical as well as digital solutions to improve the efficiency of the treatment process. Increasing efficiencies and optimising performance is vital, so we can make every drop count.

Loss of water through leakages is a huge problem, with such losses estimated at 15%-30% in developed countries and up to 70% in developing nations. Leak detection is thus critical, and the department of water & sanitation is addressing this problem with the “No Drop” programme of certification. It targets water conservation to curb losses so the result is zero losses. Municipalities can thus achieve a more sustainable water supply, and technology can help municipalities maintain a more efficient water management system.

Within this solution there is an integrated geographical information system that allows municipalities to pinpoint leaks and burst pipes and act accordingly in real time. That saves them time in increasing the efficiency of their maintenance and repair teams, and minimises water losses.

Given the escalating challenge of meeting growing demand from a limited water supply, these measures would seem to be an imperative. However, for several reasons progress has not been fast enough to mitigate the problem. There has traditionally been a funding issue in the water sector regarding capital investment.

• Moganedi is sales manager: power & water at ABB Energy Industries.

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