Investment in technology innovation can curb water loss, effects of climate change in SA

Published May 7, 2024


By Daya Naidoo

Climate change dominated the conversations at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, with a focus on finding long-term strategies for conservation and energy.

Like many other countries, South Africa has experienced the effects of climate change which can exacerbate existing vulnerabilities such as poverty, hunger, and poor health.

Extreme weather can translate into death, food insecurity, and water shortages.

Some of the negative effects of climate change include erratic weather patterns that negatively affect agriculture, food security, and health.

Climate change is worsening water scarcity, drought and floods as rising temperatures disrupt rain patterns and the entire water cycle.

South Africa is considered a water-stressed country and loses a substantial amount of treated water through leaking pipes and inadequate infrastructure.

Municipalities are primarily responsible for developing and maintaining infrastructure to ensure that water and other services are delivered.

But an increasing number of municipalities are facing a serious backlog in maintaining and rehabilitating the infrastructure necessary for providing potable water and sanitation services.

Recently, various areas in the country were ravaged by flash floods which have negatively impacted water infrastructure, adding to existing challenges.

It is often said, “Water is life.” However, providing an uninterrupted supply of potable water to the public is a dilemma that should be addressed with sustainable solutions.

SA is classified as a water-stressed country and in addition to climate-related problems, municipalities still lose a third of water production per year through leaks leading to revenue losses.

The latest Blue Drop Report of 2023 on Gauteng stipulates that between 40% and 44% of water is being lost in Joburg Metro. This is 44% of drinking water of which 25% is lost due to leaks alone.

KwaZulu-Natal fares much worse, as eThekwini Metro loses an astronomical 56% of its clean water supply due to leaks – more than what the metro supplies to residents.

Non-revenue water poses a threat to municipalities’ financial stability.

The result of this is the inability to supply a constant, uninterrupted water supply to residents.

This has also led to a complete shutdown of water supply for the municipality to conduct routine maintenance and infrastructure expansions and repairs.

Several municipalities including Joburg Metro, the country’s most populous city, have seen its residents go for prolonged periods without water as water-management systems collapse under pressure.

Existing systems are strained and cannot cater for the population growth, urbanisation, and accelerated development.

Our water-stressed country is struggling with many challenges. Solutions to some of the problems caused by climate change and ageing infrastructure require multi-stakeholder strategies including investment in infrastructure and innovative technologies.

These can be achieved through collaborations among the private sector, government, and academia.

The issue of water security for South Africa affects the water sector but has far-reaching consequences across the entire economy, as it touches on growth and development of all economic sectors.

With organisations such as Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and other entities in the National System of Innovation, South Africa can harness existing innovations and develop home-grown technologies that address local challenges such as these.

We need to continue to fund and support innovative technologies geared at tackling some of the water challenges which include the prevention of water leaks, digitisation of water processing, and infrastructure support for water reticulation.

An example would be the Municipal Operations App funded by TIA and developed by Khanyisa Projects, a KwaZulu Natal-based SME.

The app provides municipal department managers with a fully integrated operational tool that enables field workers to detect water leaks.

The Municipal Operations App was developed using Open Source platforms that allow the public and community leak inspectors to easily record details of leaks, including positions and the level of urgency required.

In contrast to existing municipal applications, which only provide a communication link to the public and communities, the solution provides managers of different municipal departments and field teams with a fully integrated operational tool.

TIA is currently engaging other municipalities to expand the reach of the Municipal Operations App.

The app is essential as South Africa loses 30% of its revenue water – a cost of up to R9 billion annually.

Therefore, investment in such technologies will be beneficial as early detection systems are lacking, and seamless integration between water conservation and water demand systems is needed to effectively address the water challenge.

Implementing strategies to reduce non-revenue water in South Africa is possible. This requires public and private partnerships to invest in technology solutions and innovations.

We must engender a conducive environment for the support of commercially viable innovations with social and economic impact.

These technologies contribute effectively to the government’s National Water and Sanitation Plan which is intended to guide the water sector with investment planning for the development of water resources, and the delivery of water and sanitation services until 2030 and beyond.

* Daya Naidoo is Head of Natural Resources at the Technology Innovation Agency

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.