How diving into tech can help revive Joburg’s ailing water system

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Community members fill water buckets from a communal tap in a village outside Senwabarwana in Limpopo. Picture: Leon Sadiki
Community members fill water buckets from a communal tap in a village outside Senwabarwana in Limpopo. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Johannesburg is the economic hub of South Africa and needs uninterrupted water supply to ensure that economic activity can continue if it is to avoid disinvestment and consequent job losses, as seen recently in the North West.

Although the City of Gold is currently enjoying a measure of water security with full dams after an abundant rainy season, much of its water infrastructure requires maintenance and repair. Burst pipes, blockages and vandalised water meters make it more difficult for the city’s limited budget to be stretched to repair its aging infrastructure.

READ: Helen Joseph Hospital water outage threatens lives of dialysis patients

When you add the rapid urbanisation taking place in South Africa – with 71% of the population expected to live in cities by 2030 – it’s clear that Johannesburg Metro authorities need to do more than just maintain its water infrastructure. They need to expand it too.

While Joburg Water is responsive on Twitter, via its call centre and SMS line, the city could manage its preventive maintenance and repair strategy more effectively if it had an accurate, real-time overview of our water infrastructure and the state it is in.


The groundwork has already been done in the form of the National Treasury’s Infrastructure Delivery Management System, a document that outlines systematic processes in delivering and maintaining infrastructure.

The final step needed is digital transformation and it is possible with digital twin technology. A digital twin is a digital replica of the city’s water infrastructure system to give officials a single view of what’s out there, what condition it’s in, and what repairs need to be done.

A more data-informed approach to running the city is likely to boost service delivery, making the city more sustainable, efficient, and liveable for everyone.

Having this kind of inside information helps decision-making and prioritises which problems need to be fixed first – and which likely problems can be avoided with preventive maintenance.

What’s more, because it’s driven by artificial intelligence, a digital twin guiding these decisions means that human error is less likely.

This digital twin would contain data about the state of each pipe, valve and pump, making it easier for the various Joburg Water teams to use the same data to work together, rather than in silos.

A digital replica would also create a detailed record of every single piece of work done on our infrastructure, when it was done and by whom. This is important because all the information about a particular site is recorded in one secure place.

If a site repeatedly experienced the same fault, repaired by the same engineer, the data could help determine whether the engineer needs retraining – or if the needed repair is much more extensive than was previously thought.

The work involved in building a digital twin would also create jobs – and not just for computer programmers and data analysts – but for entry-level workers too. The process of creating a digital twin needs people to scan and capture data, to install the Internet of Things sensors and devices, as well as for the more high-level jobs of analysing the information communicated by those devices and making decisions about how the asset should be used and maintained.

READ: Helen Joseph doctor warns ‘patients will die’ as water crisis grows surgery backlog

Setting up a digital twin of Johannesburg’s water infrastructure could be the beginning of even bigger things: next could be digital twins of our transport system and public buildings.

A more data-informed approach to running the city is likely to boost service delivery, making the city more sustainable, efficient, and liveable for everyone.

Although the country’s economy is constrained, and the city of Johannesburg’s budgets are under pressure, data-based planning and project management can help local and national governments make more efficient use of South Africa’s water resources and help them implement more proactive maintenance programmes.

. Dominic Collett is an urban development engineer and smart city specialist at Royal HaskoningDHV

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