We need a 4IR shift in our approach to SA’s multiple water-related crises


By Mduduzi Mbiza and Prof Saurabh Sinha.

This article first appeared in the Daily Maverick: 04 September 2022.

Nelson Mandela Bay is experiencing a water shortage and facing an imminent Day Zero. In some parts of the city, taps already run dry. Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality has been pleading with residents not to use more than 50 litres per person per day as dams dry up. The water crisis has left thousands of residents with little to no water and many rely on JoJo tanks.

The water crisis has extended to schools and some have been forced to close by 11am because there was no water. According to the municipality’s water dashboard, more than 10,000 leaks were fixed between 25 June and 3 August 2022, with 488 leaks still outstanding.

South Africa’s water scarcity is rooted in, but not limited to, recurring droughts, ageing infrastructure, poor maintenance and water misuse. In its 2020/21 integrated annual report, Johannesburg Water said it had an infrastructure renewal backlog of about R20.4-billion because of underfunding.

This backlog, combined with theft and the vandalism of water infrastructure, destruction of hydrants by vagrants, “illegal” car washers and burst water pipes all contribute to the water challenges in many city areas, including Soweto and Alexandra.

Access to water as a human right

The United Nations (UN) acknowledges the importance of equitable access to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as an integral component of the realisation of all human rights.

Furthermore, in July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution recognising “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights”.

The Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6), which promotes access to clean water and sanitation for all, is in line with this resolution. Sadly, while the world is moving slowly towards “access for all”, the clock is ticking as water demand skyrockets.

Water demand is rising due to rapid population growth, urbanisation and increasing pressure from agriculture, industry and the energy sector. Decades of misuse, poor management and the over-extraction and contamination of freshwater and groundwater supplies have exacerbated water stress and led to the deterioration of water-related ecosystems.

According to the UN’s 2022 Sustainable Development Goals report, even though the proportion of the global population using safely managed drinking water services increased from 70% in 2015 to 74% in 2020, there were still two billion people without safely managed drinking water services, including 1.2 billion people lacking even a basic level of service. Since 2000, there has been a 40% increase in the number of people being able to access safe drinking water in sub-Saharan Africa.

There’s progress, but it’s not as fast as it should be. Progress is not meeting the demand of the growing population. Every aspect of society relies on water, whether it be for food production, energy generation or the production of goods and services.

Going to waste

Sadly, many water systems that keep ecosystems alive have become stressed. Rivers, lakes and aquifers are drying up or becoming too polluted to use. Water pollution from pesticides and fertilisers that wash away from farms, untreated human wastewater and industrial waste are all contributing to water scarcity in many countries.

Agriculture also contributes to water waste as water is lost because of leaky irrigation systems, inefficient application methods and the cultivation of crops that need too much water for the environment in which they are grown. The amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere affects weather patterns. Because of climate change, some regions experience water scarcity, while others experience flooding.

In early 2022, KwaZulu-Natal experienced heavy rains that led to deadly floods, and more than 450 people lost their lives. Homes and major roads were damaged, some were destroyed. Many factors, both natural and manmade, contributed to the high death toll and damage that resulted from the 2022 floods.

Droughts have become increasingly common in many places across the world. In 2017, Cape Town was on the edge of becoming the world’s first major city to run out of water. Cape Town is part of the Western Cape Water Supply System, which is almost entirely dependent on rainfall. A change in weather patterns resulted in a decline in rainfall, which significantly contributed to the city’s close call regarding Day Zero. Fortunately, good winter rains in 2018 and a change in residents’ behaviour resulted in the postponement of Day Zero.

On the other side of the world, countries in southern Europe have been forced to limit water use because of drought and scarce rainfall. About 20% of European territories and 30% of Europeans are affected by water stress annually.

In response to the worsening drought, Portugal’s government ordered the shutdown of six dams in February 2022, almost cutting off water use for electricity production and irrigation. According to a study by Thomas Brown, Vinod Mahat and Jorge Ramirez, serious water shortages are likely in some regions in the United States. This is based on monthly projections of water demand and renewable water supply in light of population growth and climate change.

Singapore’s solution

These insights emphasise the need for a fundamental shift in how we look at water-related challenges. For instance, countries such as Singapore are turning sewage into clean water. Singapore has developed a four-stage process to purify conventionally treated wastewater through microfiltration, reverse osmosis and ultraviolet irradiation. Most of this treated water is used for non-drinking purposes, primarily by industries with production requirements for high-purity water.

The lack of an independent source of fresh water has forced Singapore to intensify efforts to become self-sufficient. The two major sources of Singapore’s water — recycling and desalination — are built on technological infrastructure.

Given that ocean water is estimated at about 97% of available water on the planet, desalination, which removes mineral components from saline water such as seawater, should arguably be the primary technological process used to supply citizens with clean water.

Singapore, for instance, has five desalination plants that provide its population with clean water daily. Water management and desalination technologies are becoming increasingly crucial in ensuring that water scarcity is eradicated and in providing clean water, especially for people in remote areas.

Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies are becoming more popular as countries seek innovative approaches to meet SDG 6 targets:

  • Ageing water infrastructure is one area that could use the help of 4IR technologies, particularly the Internet of Things. Remote sensors, for example, can improve the accuracy and speed at which utility systems can detect and repair leaks; 3D printing technology can produce complex water-infrastructure components, reducing costs and production time.
  • Big Data technology can assist in understanding climate change trends by detecting ecosystem changes and forecasting natural tragedies.
  • Artificial intelligence can also reduce water wastage. Additionally, it can reduce water pollutants, simplify water management and optimise irrigation systems in the agriculture sector.

Organisations such as the CSIR are investing in developing technologies that aim to improve water resources, thus ensuring water availability. The selected technologies are:

  • Potable water network management through innovative systems;
  • Decentralised wastewater treatment systems to augment centralised wastewater treatment plants; and
  • A national, centralised water data repository that is easy to access.

The implementation of 4IR technologies in the water industry is slowly gaining momentum. Countries are looking for different approaches to scale implementation for the benefit of their people while improving health and contributing to the development of economies.

However, as a global society, we must also emphasise local, regional, national and international partnerships (SDG 9) if we want 4IR technologies to reach rural and underdeveloped areas, because leaving these behind further delays the 2030 agenda.

One could argue that Singapore’s population size (5.6 million) gives the country an advantage in implementing technological innovations at scale. In terms of this argument, we conclude that South Africa needs to put in 10 times the effort of Singapore if the country wants to meet SDG 6’s targets.

In conclusion, we advocate for sustainable water education, promotion, improved water-resource management and an improved approach to water quality and sanitation at both the municipal and national level. We also recommend augmented useage of cost-effective 4IR technologies. DM

Mduduzi Mbiza is a research associate at the University of Johannesburg. 

Prof Saurabh Sinha is an electronic engineer and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg. 

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.


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