Using citizens to map SA’s water leaks

2013-04-19 00:00

WHEN I was growing up, we lived on a smallholding. Access to fresh drinking water was from the most basic source — a well. When we moved closer to the city, we had the privilege of tap water. The idea of water scarcity in South Africa just wasn’t something I thought of often.

Today, that is no longer the case. In KwaZulu-Natal, despite having the country’s second-largest population, up to 43,5% of the province’s water goes to waste. Durban loses 37,5% of the city’s water before consumers even get to use it.

The United Nations reports that by 2025, two-thirds of the world is projected to face water scarcity. The Environment and Conservation Association stated that by 2015, 80% of South Africa’s fresh-water resources will be so badly polluted that no process of purification available in the country will be able to make it fit for consumption.

What I’m really concerned about is that water leaks in our homes, streets, and communities are costing South Africa billions. Our country is losing up to 35% of its water supply due to leakages and failure to pay.

With deteriorating resources and the growth in water demand, an alarming percentage of our country’s water is going to waste. According to a recent report, small municipalities lose, on average, 72,5% of their water; mid-sized municipalities between 30,5% and 41,3%, and metros around 34,3%.

Imagine if we could address that water loss. It would equate to large sums of money being saved, and more importantly, protect and save a critically valuable resource.

After a team of IBM consultants conducted research on non-revenue water in the City of Tshwane in November 2012, we could identify the role that technology, and specifically data analytics, could play in finding solutions to all this water literally going down the drain.

IBM recently launched a five-week WaterWatchers initiative, which runs from the end of March to the end of April, to give South Africans a way to report water issues to the government. For a window period, citizen reports can be made by SMS, or through the WaterWatchers portal, or by mobile app. All the reports of water leaks and pipe bursts collate to a central portal and give a map of the water issues across the country. The WaterWatchers portal is a resource for information on water conservation and one can view a leak hot-spot map showing where problems exist in the water systems.

South Africa’s draft National Water Resource Strategy estimates that it will cost about $100 billion to upgrade and expand the country’s water infrastructure over the next decade. So any savings from reducing waste and pilferage can be reinvested in system upgrades.

We need the support of a nation to map the leaks.

If we can do this, we can start to find real ways to use technology to save a precious resource, for which there is no alternative.

• Ahmed Simjee is an executive working on IBM Smarter Planet Lead at IBM South Africa.

• See www.ibmwaterwatchers.co.za

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