Infrastructure modernisation, consumer education and data analytics will be key tools to overcoming the challenges posed by ageing water infrastructure. This is according to engineering, procurement and construction services provider Black & Veatch’s 2017 global ‘Strategic Directions Water Industry Report’ published last month.
Although the report is delivered from a US perspective – with insights from Asia-Pacific and Australia – it provides a view on challenges, best practices and innovations as countries worldwide, including South Africa, adapt to a ‘new normal’ of accommodating climate change amidst increasing public scrutiny to achieve a sustainable water supply for the future.
The report highlights key issues that are hampering the development and operation of sustainable, smart water systems, including supply management challenges, fiscal and broader economic constraints and the need to engage more effectively with customers.
“In the past year, we have seen greater emphasis on addressing water loss and conservation as a means of achieving sustainability. The industry appears to be moving away from the traditional view of growing overall supply and shifting towards optimising current sources along with efforts to enhance water quality, quantity and accessibility,” says Black & Veatch water president Cindy Wallis-Lage.
She notes that recent, high-profile water incidents in the US have raised public awareness of water-quality issues and ageing infrastructure. This, in turn, is leading water service providers to rethink capital improvement programme funding strategies, including how greater levels of customer education can help support campaigns to secure infrastructure investment capital.
Wallis-Lage further suggests that service providers must work more effectively with government and their customers to communicate the consequences of underinvestment, which can include asset failure, compromised water supply, decreased economic development and less job creation.
Although water infrastructure is critical to the economic health of communities, its low levels of prioritisation continue to hamper its ability to secure appropriate funding levels.
However, with limited capital, alternative funding mechanisms, such as public–private partnerships, are also gaining traction, she notes.
“To meet the challenges facing water utilities worldwide, new approaches to financing, industry collaboration and investments in technologies, such as smart metering and data analytics, should be part of an integrated water utility plan. These new tactical approaches to meeting operational challenges will position service providers for the future,” Wallis-Lage explains.
Black & Veatch sub-Saharan Africa business development director Webb Meko further stresses that water utilities across the region can benefit from the report mmediately by gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges, particularly as they focus on the integration of technology and improving the customer experience.
Meko suggests that South Africa faces many of the same challenges from ageing infrastructure and water supply issues, such as scarcity concerns and potability, as well as the need to reduce loss within systems.
“Data and analytics can be used to proactively develop water management programmes for urban and rural communities in support of agriculture and industry and to help mitigate against the risk of shortages,” he says.
Greater insight into how systems operate and where to deploy limited capital budgets can enable service providers to expand access while maintaining supply for the future.
Black & Veatch Water Americas executive MD Mike Orth adds that data in particular is being deployed more widely and is helping tackle water utilities’ most pressing sustainability challenges associated with educating consumers and informing intelligent infrastructure investments.
Black & Veatch management consulting executive VP Ann Bui adds that smart analytics provide for utility resiliency. “The smart integration of data analytics in water utility operations is key to informing real-time business decisions and enhancing efficiencies,” she says, adding that such analytics can drive how a water utility models its operations, from finances to asset management.
Further, proactive customer engagement should be part of a modern water utility’s strategic plan, Bui notes, concluding that utilities can also enhance customer care by providing timely notifications on, for example, high use, potential leaks, water conservation tips and water-quality alerts.