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The call to all South Africans to use water sparingly in Water Month came with a sting. An increasing number of citizens regularly have no reliable access to water at all, let alone the option to use it sparingly. The taps in their homes and communities often either run dry or only have water intermittently and unpredictably.

Though Johannesburg’s water situation has been in the spotlight in recent months, residents of other municipalities, both large and small, share this experience. 

As a water-scarce country, conserving what little water we have has always been an imperative. But with enormous infrastructure challenges, issues around mismanagement and corruption, the effects of climate change and the subsequent losses in non-revenue water, conservation efforts are proving difficult. 

The consequences of this are huge. Poor water infrastructure, supply and quality poses a public health risk, which puts pressure on hospitals that are already constrained. It affects children’s ability to learn and businesses’ ability to operate, posing educational and economic challenges, and leads to social unrest. And, of course, it influences and is influenced by SA’s electricity woes. 

Running in parallel 

The 600-page independent assessment of Eskom by technical association vgbe makes strong and concerning claims about the role of water in SA’s energy crisis. “The water treatment plant at Kendal,” the report says, “is in a very poor condition and needs urgent maintenance and refurbishment. If the existing plant fails six units — 3,840MW — would be off the grid.”

Similar issues are apparent at Medupe and Matimba: “The Medupi and Matimba sites share the raw-water retreatment plant. This plant urgently requires at least maintenance and upgrading. If the existing plant fails, 12 units — 9,800MW — would go off grid.” 

With nearly 4,000MW off the grid SA is immediately plunged into stage four load-shedding. Add another 9,800MW and we’re lurching towards a worst-case scenario. 

Water is integral to Eskom’s functioning, and there is no doubt that maintaining and upgrading its water treatment plants and cooling towers, and repairing water leakages, are among the power utility’s most urgent priorities. If SA continues to be hamstrung by crippling water supply issues there will arguably be more serious problems at play. 

In other words, SA’s electricity crisis is also a water crisis. And its water crisis is also an electricity crisis.

Eskom is not unaware of this. It hosted a water and wastewater conference at the end of February. The meeting was productive, and involved open discussions about the issues the utility is facing and how policy developers, suppliers and the private sector at large can provide advice and support.

Eskom also spoke openly about its commitment to improving efficiencies, reducing leaks and boosting monitoring and performance at its water treatment plants by introducing digital solutions.

Future-proofing tactic 

There is scope yet for SA’s water situation to turn around. Public-private partnerships are likely to prove critical, and the fact that the appetite exists for these sorts of engagements is promising.

Adequate budgetary allocations — and especially their ethical implementation — are equally important. As is increased pressure to bring leaders and stakeholders to account. Accountability leads to action.

Then there is the role of digital solutions. If there is one tactic that is most likely to have the largest impact in addressing the water crisis over the long term, this is it. The lack of advanced technological tools in the country’s water plants — in Eskom and beyond — is hampering maintenance and upgrading efforts. It’s also slowing engineers’ ability to effect change when it’s most needed.

If we continue to focus on the short term, plugging bullet holes with Band-Aid solutions, we’re likely to be in the same position in 10 years’ time. But implementing the right tools allows for a proactive rather than reactive response that can help to address leaks quickly and effectively, model for climate change-related events, and help to future-proof our water infrastructure against all possible scenarios.

While training might be required and there is an initial capex outlay, both are worthwhile. The cost to society without these innovations is far greater. The water crisis is deep and systemic. It has to be viewed holistically with other issues the country is facing — power in particular — if its full scale and impact is to be understood. Any solutions have to look to a less disruptive and more sustainable future. 

Mashele is business development director of the water advisory group at international engineering and project management consultancy Royal HaskoningDHV. 

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