High-tech computer applications for data management, mapping, modelling and imagery are assisting consultancy SRK Consulting in KwaZulu-Natal to present large amounts of data in a more accessible, visual format, allowing clients and stakeholders to quickly understand information, which increases their ability to make informed and better project decisions.
SRK Consulting Durban branch partner and principal civil engineer James Morris explains that the company brings together data from various elements of a project – such as planning, geotechnical, environmental and social – into a geographical information system (GIS) framework to create highly detailed spatial images.
“This allows the information to be communicated more easily within multidisciplinary project teams and especially to nontechnical users. We have found that the data is far easier to understand and explain when presented in a more visual way – on a local or regional map, for instance. When this information is only in text, tables and graphs in a thick report, it can be very daunting and time-consuming to digest; the significance of key data can also be difficult to extract,” he adds.
Working on a rural groundwater supply project in the Amajuba district municipality of KwaZulu-Natal, SRK has applied high-tech methods, while ensuring that the findings and recommendations are effectively communicated to clients and affected parties.
“In doing an assessment of groundwater resources in rural areas for the Amajuba district municipality, we have taken a more regional approach which will improve sustainability and water quality. This is an innovative departure from previous practices, where boreholes have generally been drilled without a full understanding of the area’s water balance or aquifer characteristics,” says SRK principal hydrogeologist Raven Kisten.
Using remote sensing and an interpretation of geological structures and faults, SRK has completed a catchment-scale assessment in the Amajuba area, which identified areas with high groundwater potential for well-field development, offering a more sustainable and quality water supply.
The work lays the foundation for production boreholes to be integrated with bulk groundwater supply schemes with larger footprints and for appropriate maintenance and groundwater monitoring programmes.
Kisten notes that in SRK’s presentations to council officials and public representatives, it is useful to show extensive project-related data on maps rather than just in reports, allowing for ongoing capacity building among stakeholders.
“We spend a great deal of time conducting highly sophisticated assessments, but we need to convey the essence of our results to decision-makers and sometimes also the public. While a plain cadastral map is not always well understood, we can map our data in layers and provide images that make it much easier to show the current situation and future options,” says SRK partner and principal civil engineer Murray Sim.
SRK Consulting partner and principal engineering geologist Angus Bracken explains that, while used mainly in planning, these mapping tools can also be used for diagnosing problems.
For instance, in an investigation of technical problems occurring at houses in a nearby settlement, the area was analysed by overlaying a range of maps – including geological, soil, topographic, drainage and geotechnical data.
“This facilitated the process of examining the factors that could affect the integrity of the buildings. “After helping us to identify the causes of the problems, the mapping techniques can now be used to ensure the problems are avoided in future – as the maps can show quite clearly which areas are more suitable for housing purposes,” Bracken says.
In a recent project in Isipingo, south of Durban, historic satellite images were vital in helping SRK solve a regular flooding problem for the eThekwini municipality emanating from a wetland between the highway and the coastline.
“Having modelled the catchment area of the wetland and assessed the drainage infrastructure, we then compared satellite photographs year-on-year and discovered that one of the property owners bordering the wetland had, over time, caused a significant blockage to the main drainage channel,” says SRK principal civil engineer Nic Brien.
He adds that this was not obvious, owing to overgrown vegetation and limited previous knowledge of the wetland’s layout. However, the consequences of this blockage were such that even a moderate storm would cause flooding.
Based on this assessment, works are currently under way to implement a new drainage path comprising a concrete canal installed on the side of the wetland, as well as the upgrading of a number of culverts and canals in the industrial area where most of the flooding occurred.
“The solution not only tackles the flooding but also reduces the silt deposition that resulted in the clogging up of the wetland. “During major storms, the majority of the silt will bypass the wetland through the canal, with the concrete base enabling easier dredging when required,” Brien explains.
Systems developed by SRK are integrated with a company’s decision-making tools, allowing improved understanding of selected decision criteria and technical information, which can help decision-makers in their considerations of the available options.
“Whether in the private or public sector, those with the duty and authority to make decisions must have a firm foundation of evidence on which to base their choices. By using high-tech solutions to integrate the necessary data, we can ensure that the best options are highlighted, allowing for well-informed decisions, which will have a greater impact on the successful delivery of projects,” Morris says.
Nontechnical stakeholders may include financial officials, municipal councillors, and a range of interested and affected parties; this method of sharing project plans and details is also beneficial to contractors working on the project itself, who often prefer to see a visual representation of what needs to be done.
Morris explains that data mapping using GIS tools is also used for analysis and prediction. Where water quality in a river could be negatively impacted on by a proposed settlement, for example, data on existing conditions can be modelled and compared with possible future conditions. The predicted results can then be plotted in colours on a map of the area, with a scale of colours showing levels of negative and positive impact.
“A data-rich visual impression is able to quickly convey areas where there are challenges or where better options are available. “Our clients frequently display these maps in their offices to inform their ongoing discussions and to share the issues with other stakeholders. It is particularly beneficial when working with infrastructure projects, as much of the work we do on infrastructure is spatially related,” he comments.
The ability to integrate data seamlessly and represent it simply is also key to the efficiency of a project team, says Morris, concluding that, “SRK’s expertise covers a wide range of disciplines on a single project and this technology supports our multi-disciplinary approach, which can draw from SRK experts in other offices worldwide.”