THE REAL NUMBERS: Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa
JOHANNESBURG - Every day in our cities, there are people who scrape a living out of trash - scavenging for plastic and metal containers from our rubbish bins. 

They load these on mobile devices that snake along dangerously between our vehicles.

They keep our cities clean and ensure that material resources are recycled. Although they live at the extreme margins of society, I see them as innovative and sustainable development goals (SDG), champions of a cleaner environment. I have taken time to speak and learn from them.

Some time ago, 25 of us from academia, the private sector, NGOs, statistics offices, information technology experts and UN agencies knuckled down for 12 months to answer the question of What is Data Revolution?

The World that Counts is a title of a publication we delivered to then-UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon as an independent expert advisory group on the eve of the adoption of the SDGs by the UN General Assembly in September 2015.

In 2017, a team of 240 scientists were collating the sixth report on the environment, Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6).

The report looks at areas such as air, freshwater, oceans, land, biota/biodiversity and cross-cutting issues to understand what it is that is happening in our environment. The advent of the SDGs in harnessing unified work have to a large extent catalysed these possibilities. In February we convened in Singapore for our fourth and last authors' meeting of GEO6. The meeting provided a stark reminder of the water situation in Cape Town.

Being the first to suffer this phenomenon in modern history, it raised real contemplation of what lessons should be drawn. GEO6 does not merely have a passing interest on the matter of Cape Town.

It is being watched with the eyes of a hawk. I was caught flat-footed and realised there was neither a clear strategy nor message engulfing South Africa incorporated about what was being done about this tragedy waiting to happen. Perhaps such a message was drowned by our own noisy democracy.

When it comes to matters of water and sanitation, the Singapore River remains a marvel and its meandering path narrates elegantly the development path of the country. River Singapore was an open sewer in the 1950s that was not very far behind other Asian cities like Bombay, now Mumbai. It was certainly in the league of other African colonial cities such as Accra in Ghana and Lagos in Nigeria, which had an open drainage. It was a far cry from Nairobi in Kenya.

Certainly South Africa with its apartheid baggage was ahead in terms of infrastructure, even by township bucket system standards. (This by any stretch of imagination is not to be an apologist for the evils of apartheid).

Yet Singapore today has outstripped all its post-colonial counterparts and is not by any measure a comparator. Singapore got down to work shortly after its independence in the 1950s and from 1970 for a period of 10 years reclaimed the Singapore River.

This was by cleaning it and unchoking it from the stench and sediment of faecal sludge. No sooner had that happened than the Singapore seals returned and the city state paved not only the space of work, but enjoined it with work and play.

A good chunk of black and grey water is reusable as portable water in Singapore. Another important lesson from Singapore is that as they look for alternative sources of water, none include drilling for underground water nor desalination.

I kept wondering about what it is that informed our strategy for Cape Town that failed to inform Singapore. Looking ahead into the next 100 years, Singapore is now adding a motto not only of work, stay and play, but is playing with technology.

This is in the light of the world that counts and the role that data revolution will engender in the context of this the fourth industrial revolution.

The challenges of urbanisation and urban squalor are certainly upon us, as we contemplate on SDG 6, which focuses on water and sanitation. How did the Asian tigers deliver to their citizens on this? Singapore, Korea and Japan certainly stand out on how they cleaned up their environment and fast on the heels of this is China.

Japan made a presentation which in its minutest of planning transformed faeces and grey water into resources and jobs. African cities have plenty of faeces and unemployment and perhaps can learn from Singapore, Japan and China on how they planned in the required detail to clean and transform faecal sludge.

If African leaders, slums and cities look hard enough at themselves and take planning, measurement and implementation seriously, then in every faecal sludge there is leadership for transforming faeces into resources and employment.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.