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Real Economy News in Real Time
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SA looks to innovation to help manage ‘daunting’ water challenge

5th July 2019 BY: Natasha Odendaal
Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

As the thirtieth driest country in the world, South Africa is continually assessing how best to balance water supply with ever-growing demand. The threat of water shortages remains a real and present danger, as became frighteningly apparent during Cape Town’s 2017 ‘Day Zero’ crisis.

South Africa has a history, however, of innovation in the provision and management of water and sanitation infrastructure and several industry practitioners believe that an opportunity is arising for the engineering sector to begin leveraging new technological innovations in a way that guarantees security of supply and does so in a more ecologically sustainable manner.


Water Research Commission (WRC) CEO Dhesigen Naidoo argues that the country has always faced water issues, which have been managed, up to a point, through innovation.

Exacerbating circumstances in recent years have made the water crisis more visible, uncovering deep-seated issues such as insufficient water infrastructure maintenance and investment, recurrent droughts driven by climatic variation, inequality in access to water and sanitation, and deteriorating water quality, besides others.


With a semi-arid climate and average annual rainfall of about 465 mm – half the world average – survival and development have made water innovation imperative, resulting in South Africa becoming arguably one of the most active in innovative endeavours.

Naidoo says the country’s historic resilience, citing examples of the Khoisans’ methods of detecting and harvesting water under the desert floor and using empty ostrich eggshells for storage for long journeys across the Kalahari, has been built on in the country’s modern history.

In addition to dam building for agricultural growth and interbasin transfers to enable mining and industrial development, South Africa has also boasted world firsts, such as reverse-osmosis membrane and dry-cooled electricity generation, according to the latest WRC study, ‘The South Africa Water Innova- tion Story’, published in conjunction with the African Centre for a Green Economy.

Sanitation could now also become the nucleus of a new circular economy, comprising a cycle of technology design, water treatment, water distribution, water use and consumption, wastewater collection, recycling and water reclamation, and product recovery and residual waste use.

Recycling & Reuse
The recycling and reuse of water and the processing of waste hold major opportunities that could stimulate peripheral economies and build a significant revenue potential.

“The recycling cycle is about much more than the water component,” Naidoo says, highlighting the opportunity to create what could be the world’s first sanitation unicorn. In business parlance, a unicorn is described as a startup that has a market worth at least $1-billion.

Using a plethora of technologies, South Africa can successfully recycle what already exists in pools of polluted water all over the country, from acid mine drainage (AMD) and agriculture and fertiliser waste to brackish aquifers.

Citing the example of AMD in Johannes- burg, Naidoo points to the “invaluable soup” within three expansive, kilometres-deep polluted water basins that can, if processed smartly, be mined through a combination of methods for valuable minerals within the water and subsequently purified to contribute to water security.

Further, there are added benefits to be found in beneficiating sanitation waste, with faecal sludge delivering potential for energy use and production, chemicals extraction and protein and lipids.

“We are talking about a step-up on nutritional security, energy security and high-value chemicals that can be used in different ways,” he says, noting that this enables the creation of businesses, the industrialisation of these processes and home-grown companies going global and leading the world in this domain.

“The whole world needs these solutions . . . and we sit with stacks of incredible technologies around recycling, reuse, irrigation, earth observation tools to manage the system and Fourth Industrial Revolution tools.”

The big shift for South Africa will be the industrialisation of these solutions and innovations to become a global supplier, and, in effect, become one of “the world’s industrial water hubs”.

Daunting Tasks

Although South Africa has been developing innovative technologies in the water sector for decades, with many of these innovations being adopted globally, the country still faces significant water challenges that require a holistic approach in further managing surface water, groundwater, recycling and demand.

Even if South Africa applies all government’s existing plans and South Africans use less water, estimations are that the country will face up to a 17% water deficit by 2030.

The nation’s semi-arid status could possibly be further exacerbated by the high frequency of extreme weather events, including longer, more devastating droughts, intense rainfall and flash flooding, and cyclones, says Naidoo.

In addition, South Africa’s dams, rivers, wastewater systems and water distribution systems are in a dire state.

“The majority of our dams, water treatment facilities and wastewater systems are over 30 years old, with some as old as 100 years. Inadequate maintenance has been done in the past 20 years and the population has virtually doubled since this infrastructure was installed, so the existing infrastructure cannot cope with demand,” says South African Capital Equipment Export Council CEO Eric Bruggeman.

“As an arid country, we have to provide more dams in catchment areas and maximise the water we have. On top of that, leaks, contamination and a failure to recycle water mean we are losing a large proportion of the available water,” he says ahead of the IFAT Africa conference, a water, sewage refuse and recycling trade fair and conference, which is set to take place in Johannesburg this month.

The Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation’s National Water and Sanitation Master Plan outlines that 56% of the over 1 150 wastewater treatment works and 44% of the 962 water treatment works are in poor or critical condition and in need of urgent rehabilitation.

There are also challenges in the effective operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation infrastructure by the department, water boards, other government departments and institutions.

Further, there are unfinished, delayed or under-construction water and sanitation infrastructure and augmentation projects across the country.

Institute for Security Studies African Futures and Innovation senior researcher Zachary Donnenfeld notes that, while it is difficult to quantify the overall impact, the consequences of the general deferment of repairs and maintenance will drive up the cost of an asset over time.

“The biggest challenges are financing, competing national infrastructure investment priorities and coordination across the three spheres of government,” he adds.

Municipalities also essentially have an unfunded mandate to provide water at very low cost.

“Public–private partnerships have a role to play in reintroducing stability to South Africa’s water sector; however, owing to water’s essential role in our lives and its low price in South Africa, I think the private sector is less inclined to gamble on water infrastructure than on, say, transportation or electricity,” he explains

This emerges as President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterates government’s infrastructure development approach based on stronger partnerships between the public and private sectors, with a special package of financial and institutional measures proposed to include the prioritisation of the water infrastructure, besides others.

While the R100-billion set aside to seed the infrastructure fund is deemed a good start, estimates of what it would take to repair South Africa’s water infrastructure could be nine to ten times greater.

In an ever-increasing water-stressed future in the face of much larger populations, higher levels of development and global climate change, South Africa’s future water security will depend on much higher levels of innovation and ingenuity, Naidoo adds.

South Africa could alleviate many of its water pressures through a series of ‘taps’, such as developing excellent storage systems, continued infrastructure development and the maintenance of dams for rainfall and surface water, as well as the harvesting of the significant potential to increase groundwater’s percentage of the country’s water use mix from 8% to 33% if quality control, an active aquifer recharge management strategy and a good regulatory regime are put in place.

However, no combination of these solutions will cure the ailing state of South Africa’s water sector without focusing on demand, says Naidoo, noting the historical focus on supply within a water resources management strategy, as opposed to demand management.

With escalating water demand threatening to surpass supply, South Africa is now faced with an urgent need for holistic water management efforts that place equal emphasis on demand management, as well as new infrastructure, maintenance and operations.

Water use behaviour is the most difficult adjustment currently; however, it holds the most promise and is fundamental to water security.

Any dividend gained from water supply management and the application of smart technology will be lost if South Africa remains wasteful, he says.

South Africa’s per capita consumption, at 253 ℓ a person a day, far exceeds the global average of 177 ℓ a person a day.

The high water use is partly due to municipal nonrevenue water, which is currently at an unacceptably high 37% to 41%, and, while figures vary, the average physical losses in municipal systems, which make up a portion of nonrevenue water, are estimated to be about 25%, against a global best practice of 15%.

Further, the average South African uses municipal water once, compared with some cities’ use of every drop of water up to seven times, Naidoo says, citing an example of a German city’s maximisation of its water supplies.

While consumption reuse may be limited, as the highest quality is reserved for potable supplies, water at varying levels of quality can be used for a myriad of industrial and domestic purposes.

“We use 30% of the water to flush our toilets, where we should be using recycled water,” he explains.

A Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) study found that the discharge of wastewater, the removal of underground water and waste disposal account for substantial water use in industrial and mining activities.

“We recommend that mining houses remediate wastewater and reuse it for irrigation, power generation, firefighting and any other nonpotable uses in close vicinity to the waste-generating streams,” says CSIR research group leader Dr Nebo Jovanovic.

“Incentivising smart farming practices may also reduce the water volumes used in agriculture,” says Jovanovic of the sector that uses a great proportion of the country’s water.

In the face of challenges such as Cape Towns recent water crisis, a growing number of South African organisations, business campuses and even individuals are also now harnessing new technologies and moving to assure their water security by installing their own water treatment facilities on site, says Vovani Products founder Henk Smit, in a statement ahead of the IFAT conference.

Several case studies based on the Western Cape’s ‘Day Zero’ dilemma, undertaken by integrated infrastructure delivery company AECOM, reveal the private sector’s own technical, economic or legislative challenges that restrict the implementation of water saving measures.

“Some clients noticed the impending crisis, requested [budgetary allocations] and engaged early. Some were more structured, but many left these interventions too late, and were required to respond to all these critical concerns simultaneously to manage the immediate and evident crisis,” says AECOM senior engineer Hanine van Deventer.

Difficult water-management parameters amid a severe multiyear drought bring about significant implications and challenges when managing a water crisis, such as that which occurred in the Western Cape from 2015 to 2018, she explains.

“When faced with the daunting task of implementing infrastructure to combat an unprecedented event such as ‘Day Zero’, stakeholders can often over- or, worse, underestimate the level of intervention required.” 

EDITED BY: Martin Zhuwakinyu Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor
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