How innovation, industrialisation and collaboration can solve SA’s clean water challenge

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As water demand increases rapidly in Africa, the need for efficient treatment and delivery systems rises. Picture: iStock
As water demand increases rapidly in Africa, the need for efficient treatment and delivery systems rises. Picture: iStock

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Friday marked the UN’s Africa Industrialisation Day, which focuses on economic transformation and sustainable development – two areas of critical importance to South Africa, especially post-Covid-19.

Africa is home to more than 1.2 billion people – 16% of the world’s population – yet accounts for less than 2% of international trade and manufacturing.

With population growth and rapid urbanisation already putting pressure on supply levels, it’s time we all played our part to equip Africa, specifically South Africa, with the power and automation technologies to boost our economy through sustainable industrialisation.

South Africa plays a vital role in Africa’s industrial growth, but, without water, there can be no development. Water availability and economic progress are closely linked.

While there’s been some improvement in the quality of drinking water, it’s still a matter of grave concern that certain towns aren’t getting enough of it.

Hundreds of jobs are linked to water management, while access to safe drinking water and sanitation protects people from disease and enables them to attend school or go to work without disruption.

This, in turn, leads to higher levels of education and employment, which is the foundation for growth.

PROBLEMS FACING SA

South Africa is facing a growing water crisis, with dam reserves reaching unprecedented lows and municipalities increasingly faced with imposing restrictions on water usage. With global water demand expected to increase by nearly a third by 2050, the demand for clean drinking water will only escalate.

This shortage should force us as consumers to think anew about water and how we are using – or overusing – it.

According to the department of water and sanitation, the global average water consumption is 180 litres per person per day, compared with South Africa’s average of 235 litres per person per day.

Read | ‘We can’t waste precious water on washing hands’: The making of a public health time bomb

Almost 3% of people in South Africa continue to live without proper sanitation, with that number increasing to 19% in rural populations, while 30% of people still lack sufficient access to running water.

While there’s been some improvement in the quality of drinking water, it’s still a matter of grave concern that certain towns aren’t getting enough of it.

There’s growing pressure on municipalities to improve water quality and implement more effective management of the entire supply chain.

Even more concerning is the management of South Africa’s treated sewage. Several rural communities are still reliant on water gathered from open sources, with many of the country’s largest rivers – such as the Vaal and Umgeni – having high contamination levels.

The most significant causes of water pollution are inadequate treatment of human waste, and inadequately managed and treated industrial and agricultural waste.

Poor water quality has a direct impact on water quantity. Polluted water that can’t be used for drinking, bathing, industry or agriculture effectively reduces the amount of useable water within a given area.

This scarcity of clean water is a clear hindrance to economic development, with the UN estimating that sub-Saharan Africa alone loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water.

MEETING THE UN’S SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

So, as we mark the UN’s Africa Industrialisation Day, we reflect on its sustainable development goals, specifically goal 6, which pledges to ensure the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.

To do this, we need to deliver new technologies, invest in research and development, and develop new business models and innovative collaborative schemes to make water supply, treatment and management more efficient.

There are four fundamental challenges to achieving these goals – awareness of the value of water, water scarcity, access to safe water and the amount of available freshwater globally.

Water is a global issue, but requires local solutions and, in South Africa, the need for infrastructural upgrades has never been greater.

No single technology can resolve all these issues. Instead, we must support optimisation of the entire water lifecycle for domestic, industrial and agricultural use, and strive to ensure that all water-intensive industries are collaborating to reuse water and reduce energy consumption.

A cross-sector approach is crucial, from water intake and treatment to transmission, distribution and reintroduction.

Water losses from leakages can be plugged, municipal wastewater can be treated and reused for agricultural purposes, and industrial wastewater can be treated and reused to grow food.

Read: Climate emergency takes its toll on southern Africa as food insecurity looms

EXAMPLES OF PROGRESS

Progress is steadily being made across Africa through a range of water supply, treatment and transfer schemes.

Take ABB’s most recent initiative, the North-South Carrier project in Botswana, where the climate is arid, rainfall unpredictable and droughts can last for several years.

There are reservoirs in the north-east of the country. However, in the south, the population of the capital is expanding rapidly, increasing the demand for water.

Government estimates that 51% of current wastewater treatment infrastructure is in poor or critical condition, with 11% completely dysfunctional and 44% of water treatment infrastructure also in poor or critical condition.

ABB’s solutions automated and powered the 360km pipeline that carries water from the north to Gaborone, as well as pumping stations and treatment plants. As a result, the percentage of people with access to safe drinking water increased from 77% to 96%, enabling rural communities in the south to survive.

In Algeria, the challenge was meeting the daily drinking requirements of a population of 5 million people. Rainfall had been 30% below normal in recent years, forcing the country to make a potable water network one of its highest priorities.

An ambitious plan to deliver 20 desalination plants along the coast, with seven new regional hydraulic projects that link the Kerrada reservoir dam to key cities – supplying 155 million cubic metres of potable water per year – is under way.

ABB delivered the complete electrical and mechanical works of the pump station required to link Oran, Algeria’s second-largest city, to the water treatment plant.

WORKING TOGETHER TO SUCCEED

Water is a global issue, but requires local solutions and, in South Africa, the need for infrastructural upgrades has never been greater. Government estimates that 51% of current wastewater treatment infrastructure is in poor or critical condition, with 11% completely dysfunctional and 44% of water treatment infrastructure also in poor or critical condition.

This is where companies like ABB come in, working with water companies and municipalities to preserve humanity’s most precious resource through pioneering sophisticated technology and digital solutions that power the supply, treatment and transfer of water to remote communities, agricultural areas and industries.

ABB provides integrated automation and electrical solutions, instrumentation and digital services for the entire water and wastewater cycle to help plug the gap between supply and demand, and deliver a safe, reliable and efficient water supply.

Having worked in Africa for a century, ABB is committed to driving innovation and industrialisation in South Africa to provide cleaner, safer and more accessible water for all.

Shukraj is managing director of ABB SA


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