Pollution from failing wastewater treatment works in Gauteng, the province’s surging population, misuse of sewerage networks, vandalism and the rapid increase of informal settlements have degraded the Hennops River, particularly in the past decade. Pictures: Fresh and Hennops Blue Horizon
Pollution from failing wastewater treatment works in Gauteng, the province’s surging population, misuse of sewerage networks, vandalism and the rapid increase of informal settlements have degraded the Hennops River, particularly in the past decade. Pictures: Fresh and Hennops Blue Horizon

Using wastewater and digital tools to find solutions for Covid-19

By Sihle Mlambo Time of article published Aug 6, 2020

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Johannesburg - Covid-19 has swept through the country, infecting more than half-a-million people and local innovators are already preparing for the next big pandemic.

Scientists believe that pandemics in the ilk of the novel coronavirus will occur again in the near future, and they predict that the impact of a future virus could be worse.

South African engineer Sheilla de Carvalho, an industry and smart asset management expert at Royal HaskoningDHV, says the use of digital tools, technology and digitisation, will enable the country to develop early warning systems which can be useful in the fight against Covid-19 and future pandemics.

She is in support of using sewage as an early warning system, but believes this should be future-proofed with the use of digital solutions to be successful.

De Carvalho said in the coming years South Africa has to look at ways to use data science and artificial intelligence to enhance solutions around wastewater management.

“It is critical that we enhance the surveillance programme with digital tools, data capture, analytics and data science. Of course we are not saying sewage surveillance must replace testing of individual people for Covid-19, but we need to complement it.

“With sewage surveillance we can detect viruses like Covid-19 in a particular community before there is a major outbreak, therefore directing the necessary resources from health practitioners to the area.

“A lot of these tools are already in place, the data collection tool is there, you can download an app, capture the data and that data is transferred to a centralised base and we are able to collect data on the ground,” said De Carvalho.

Also read: SA scientists can now use your poo to track Covid-19

De Carvalho said funding was needed for innovators to kick-start the process and believes that using digital tools would enhance wastewater testing at treatment facilities for virus purposes.

“Any digital tooling is enhancing. The core is introducing and scaling up such a programme. “It starts with data capturing on the field; once you have analysed, you are able to identify where priorities need to be driven and you are able to make fact-based decisions quicker.

“The second thing is a coronavirus dashboard which is able to visualise graphs, tables; you can imagine for decision-makers that is a plus…

“The prototype is built, it just needs buy-in from the Department of Health and water authorities, and we need to engage the Water Research Commission and the National Institute for Communicable Disease on the next steps,” she said.

De Carvalho said using digital tools would produce clear results and would allow for fact-based solutions.

“We will be able to use multiple sources of data to make better decisions, data science capabilities and introduce algorithms and AI about what could happen next. We are mining data to enhance that,” said De Carvalho.

De Carvalho said current wastewater infrastructure resources had to be digitised, preferably in 3D format.

She said instead of investing in new infrastructure, revitalising the existing infrastructure and digitising it on 3D format was necessary.

And beyond Covid-19, what’s next?

“We know we will be susceptible to these epidemics in the future; there will be outbreaks and peaks in the coming years.

“We know there will be further pandemics, so this paves the road for equipping the country with efficient early-warning systems.

“This can also help with other diseases like cholera. It will all depend on what you are trying to trace, the possibilities are really limitless,” added De Carvalho.

De Carvalho believes that the finding that saw sewage could be used to detect the virus was a game-changer and would change the way we viewed it.

“This pandemic has also highlighted many inequalities we have around water and services in this country and we know water is critical to fighting this pandemic.

“There is also the expectation that using sewage testing to prevent the spread of Covid-19 will shed light on sewage not being seen only as a dumping ground, but also as a source of vital community health information.

“It highlights innovation and the need to do things differently. I expect going forward it will become a norm to develop new ways of using waste to build more resilient communities and better manage public health crises,” she said.

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