Water management in South Africa – the challenges and solutions
By Dr. Andries Nel – Head of Water at SEM Solutions

First published in Water & Sanitation Africa in July 2020

Water scarcity locally and globally is going to shape water management trends indefinitely.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement late last year, “Our existing water systems are already over-exploited as usage increases rapidly due to population growth and as more homes get connected to water. Combine this with the worsening effects of climate change and we are clearly facing a dire situation. Unless we take drastic measures to conserve water sources and promote efficient use, water insecurity will become the biggest developmental and economic challenge facing this country.”

The growing economic crisis due to Covid-19 has introduced a more immediate economic challenge. However, it is important to remember, that while we navigate our way through the fallout from the pandemic, water security will remain a critical issue that needs to be addressed. As such, what are some of the current challenges facing water management in South Africa, and what are the solutions?

The challenges:

Climate change
South Africa is already a water-scarce country and the negative effects of climate change are likely to have an adverse impact on the country’s already strained water resources. the Business Day stated that in 2019, the agricultural sector contracted by 13.2% in the first quarter and 4.2% and 3.6% in the second and third quarters respectively, essentially due to drought.

Increasing water demand
South Africa’s domestic population is increasing at an alarming rate which subsequently results in higher water demand. According to StatsSA’s Mid-Year Population Estimates Report (from July 2019), the estimated overall population growth rate rose from approximately 1,0% for the period of 2002-2003 to 1,4% for the period of 2018–2019. This percentage equates to an increase of 12-million people per annum. In addition to the population increase, considering factors such as poor water conservation awareness and high illiteracy levels will also exacerbate the water demand. In view of the country’s strategy for increased economic growth, the increase in production sectors such as agricultural, industrial- and mining, will contribute to an increased water demand. The agricultural sector, responsible for food production and security, uses approximately 60% of the available water in South Africa.

An aging water infrastructure
As President Cyril Ramaphosa pointed out, our existing water-systems are over exploited. This is due, in part, to our aging and outdated water infrastructure. Coupled with minimal maintenance on the existing water network with minimal inclusion of novel technologies, we are faced with immense wastages as a result of system leaks. Over a third of South Africa’s water supply is lost due to aging and leaking water infrastructure. Furthermore, our existing waste water recycling systems are struggling to treat the increasing waste water demand leading to further wastages and system inefficiencies.

Water quality
South Africa’s water quality is severely impacted by industry polluters and aggravated by the aging water treatment infrastructure. Industrial effluent is a major contributor to the pollution of water sources. In some sectors, such as the mining- and industrial sector, heavy metals are used in refining processes and disposed of as industrial effluent. This effluent should be disposed of in a particular environmentally friendly manner, however, there have been cases in which these contaminants have ended up in groundwater due to pipe leaks and insufficient treatment capacity of waste water treatment plants. Evaporative cooling incorporating chemical dosing also contributes towards increased water usage and water pollution even though air-cooled alternatives are available. Natural dams and rivers have been polluted with live sewage due to insufficient waste water treatment plant capacities.

The solutions:

Water conservation
We need a paradigm shift towards embracing water conservation through public awareness and education around water use. The water crisis in Cape Town showed us that South Africans can adapt their lifestyles and habits, promoting water conservation. Nonetheless, the solution is not just in the hands of the public but new policy, legal restrictions, incentives and standards should be explored as part of a holistic approach for water sustainability.

Like in many other sectors, technology is playing a vital role in making water management systems and water networks more efficient. We have seen potential for the greater use of technologies such as variable frequency drives (VFDs) on water supply pump motors to increase the efficiency of water networks. Other technologies such as intelligent monitoring solutions incorporating smart meters and the Internet of Things (IoT) have provided water networks with fewer leaks and increased efficiencies.

Other technology based solutions include:

  • Digital twin modelling, which uses a virtual model of an existing water network to create real-time analysis and monitoring capabilities. The digital twin model incorporates live and historical data to highlight potential problems before they occur.
  • The integration of the Internet of Things (“IoT”) to improve data gathering, resulting in optimised control and forecasting.
  • Precision farming is becoming key to agricultural water efficiency. Innovative agricultural technologies and tools can provide insights into water use on farms, allowing farmers to be more resource efficient.These are, among other things, water restrictors on irrigation systems, scheduling optimisation and demand control of pivot and conventional irrigation systems.
  • Pressure control valves and water supply pressure optimisation to improve industrial and mining water efficiency by reducing the effects of leaks in the system.
  • In the building services sector, water efficiency solutions can include inter alia low flow sanitary fittings, grey water reclamation, waste water recycling, borehole water utilisation, rain water harvesting and smart water metering with built in leak detection.

Financial allocation
South Africa’s ageing water infrastructure and greater water demand requirements need to be addressed. As President Cyril Ramaphosa said, we have to take drastic measures to avoid water insecurity becoming our biggest developmental and economic challenge. While there is a great need to make our cities more resilient to climate change, we have always been a water scarce country and there will always be a need for us to manage this finite resource effectively and efficiently. Therefore, it’s not just about managing existing infrastructure, it is also about future-proofing our water networks. All of which require forward investment thinking and financial planning.

Water as a natural resource is essential to life and is becoming increasingly scarce. Access to clean water is a human right and recent crises in South Africa have shown both the public and private sectors that we need to be planning better. Resilience, adaptability and critical thinking are going to be key factors in our ongoing pursuit of sustainable water resource management. Together we can make a difference.

About the author:
As a leading mechanical engineer and engineering manager, Dr. Andries Nel heads up the water division at SEM Solutions.