The state of South Africa’s water infrastructure varies across the country, with a range of institutions responsible for its management, says South African Institution of Civil Engineering (Saice) Water Engineering Division chairperson Abri Vermeulen.
Most is still in a fair condition but it is gradually deteriorating as a result of insufficient attention to operation and maintenance, particularly in terms of preventive maintenance, compounded by a lack of reliance on engineering professionals’ support, besides other challenges.
“Insufficient funding for preventive maintenance and lack of experienced operators and maintenance teams means that infrastructure systems do not operate the way they were designed and therefore deteriorate faster than it should, causing – amongst other issues - increased water leakage from the pipe network. Since most of this is underground, failures are not physically seen until there are radical failures, such as a major pipe burst or pump failure,” adds Vermeulen.
Poorly managed and overextended wastewater treatment works result in major sewer spills into South Africa’s river systems, while urban development and rapid urbanisation also place additional strain on the existing systems and infrastructure.
“The country’s wastewater infrastructure requires proper asset management, operation and maintenance as well as future development, which includes renewal and increased infrastructure capacity,” explains Vermeulen.
To achieve proper asset management, operation and maintenance, engineering professionals need to be employed in the public sector, particularly in decision-making positions, he adds.
Many rural supplies are unreliable owing to little or no cost recovery, water use exceeds system capacity and poor performance is aggravated because of poor maintenance, says Vermeulen, reiterating that the competent management of existing infrastructure is critical to improve rural areas’ water supplies.
In other areas, timeous decisions on future developments are critical. This is illustrated by the Lesotho Highlands Water Project Phase 2 where the long delay in implementing the project – originally planned to be completed by 2019, but now in 2027 at the earliest - has increased the risk of water scarcity in Gauteng.
Potential Zero Day
Vermeulen says the country is approaching a stage where water supply outages will occur more frequently. To mitigate this, preventive action will be required to conserve water and improve water security. This should be prioritised, as failure in the system could lead industries to struggle and affect the country’s economic state.
Aside from improving operation and maintenance, such actions include raising public awareness about water-saving measures through campaigns, particularly in areas that have not had drastic water shortages; reusing treated wastewater on a larger scale; and expanding the involvement of the private sector in financing and implementing water infrastructure.
However, “bankability remains a major challenge” when encouraging private-sector investment in the infrastructure, notes Vermeulen. The culture of non-payment for services needs to be addressed and agreement reached with communities about the levels of service that can be provided with available subsidies and affordable tariffs.
He further explains that while funding needs to be “carefully prioritised”, it is not a complete solution – having sufficiently skilled engineering professionals in key positions in the sector is critical to improving infrastructure.
The national Water and Sanitation Master Plan (2019) states that the current South African water crisis is a result of insufficient water infrastructure maintenance and investment, recurring droughts driven by climate change, unequal access to water and sanitation, deteriorating water quality and a lack of skilled water engineers. Saice has drawn attention to the plight of young graduate engineers who are unable to find employment where they can gain the experience they need.
While the plan acknowledges areas in the sector that have improved and where there has been developed, it has not been implemented at a large scale.
“The water sector – lead by the Department of Water and Sanitation – should focus on implementing this plan in a prioritised manner using specialist knowledge,” says Vermeulen.
To alleviate the water crisis in South Africa, there has to be, firstly, political will, he states, adding that key public-sector institutions may have to refocus on core tasks, “implying the removal of some nice-to-have functions and the associated managers”.
Secondly, an appreciation of engineering skills and stakeholder-friendly organisational culture needs to be created, complemented by a matching of responsibilities to available professional skills that is commensurate with the demands of the job, and supported by a civil service based on clear merit-based career paths.
“Appropriate mentoring and ongoing training are required for graduates. Underlying this is the need to support the training of engineering and science graduates, underpinned by strengthening science, technology and engineering training in primary and secondary schools,” elaborates Vermeulen.
Available, technically skilled professionals have entered other occupations (often in the private sector), emigrated or have retired. However, many of these professionals are still accessible in terms of knowledge and experience skills that can help the water sector together with newly qualified professionals.
“Now is a good time to lure experienced professionals into the public sector to prioritise urgent requirements, such as essential planning and feasibility studies,” says Vermeulen.
Saice can play a key role in identifying professionals who are either practising, have been retrenched or are retired to assist public-sector institutions, while industry association Consulting Engineers South Africa can play a similar role with regard to engineering firms.