By Raymond Obermeyer, Managing Director, SEW Eurodrive
South Africa’s water crises has been well documented in recent years. What has become increasingly apparent is that there is no single water problem, instead the country is faced with a multitude of different challenges which vary from area to area.
The issues range from multi-year droughts playing havoc with water supplies in some parts of the country threatening agriculture and small towns, to aging or insufficient water infrastructure, lack of funding, poor management of available water resources, corruption and inefficiency. The challenges are exacerbated by uncertainty around future weather patterns.
The reality, however is that South Africa’s rainfall patterns have long been unpredictable and variable and will continue to be so in the future. Without adequate water infrastructure and proper management of our scarce water resources, the country is doomed to continue to lurch from water crisis to water crisis.
The state’s National Water and Sanitation Master Plan paints a bleak picture of South Africa’s water situation: only 64% of households have access to a reliable water supply service; 11% of waste water treatment and water treatment works are completely dysfunctional while 56% of waste water treatments works and 44% of water treatment works are in a poor or critical condition; and more than 14 people don’t have access to safe sanitation. More than a third of South Africa’s available water supply is lost as a result of aging and leaking infrastructure.
To achieve water security, according to the master plan, requires an estimated capital funding gap of around R33 billion per annum to be closed for the next 10 years through a combination of improved revenue generation and a significant reduction of costs.
South Africa is not alone in the water challenges it faces. According to estimates by the 2030 Water Resources Group (2030 WRG), global water demand is on track to outpace supply by 40% within the next two decades. The 2030 WRG is a public, private, civil society partnership hosted by the World Bank which supports country-level collaboration designed to unite diverse groups with a common interest in the sustainable management of water resources.
It estimates that demand for water in South Africa will reach 17.7 billion cubic metres in 2030. Current supply, however, is only around 15 billion cubic metres and is constrained by low levels of seasonal rainfall, insufficient aquifers and a dependency on water transfers between basins in other countries.
South Africa faces various water shortages across its basins, all of which can be addressed via a combination of three levers, according to a report by McKinsey’s Guilio Boccacaletti, Martin Stuchtey and Marc van Olst. Two of these levers make use of technical improvements to increase supply and improve water productivity, while the third is related to the “underlying economic choices a country faces and involves actively reducing withdrawing by changing the set of underlying economic activities.”
The McKinsey report suggests a range of existing technical measures within each sector to close the projected gap between water supply and demand. The writer’s caution, however, that this will involve a tough trade-off between the competing demands of agriculture, key industrial activities and large and growing urban centres which need to be managed based on comparative cost data across all economic sectors in order to ensure that South Africa is able to meet both its current and future water needs.
There is no question that technological solutions need to be factored in. Telemetry – an automated process of remote measurement and data collection – has already proven to be a successful recipe when it comes to managing and pre-empting maintenance needs for water and waste water (amongst others) operations. Cloud-based telemetry offers an additional level of control, cost-savings and capability.
High-tech solar pumps mapping underground freshwater reservoirs and collecting data to help prevent them running dry are already being used in some African countries, including Kenya and Uganda. Sensors in the pumps record real-time data such as energy usage and pump speed to calculate groundwater extraction rates and levels.
What is clear is that technology solutions – as well as the necessary skills - are available to address South Africa’s water challenges. However, it will require political will to prioritise maintenance, the upgrading and increase of storage capacity and more effective management of our water resources. More than ever before we need to stop talking and take action.