by Chris De Wet Steyn

Water: A scarcity in SA

SA solution to world’s water wasting away

South Africa is one of the driest countries
water.jpg

A revolutionary new product, co-developed in Australia and South Africa, seems to signal an end to one of the most critical and expensive threats to the future of the two dry countries.

“To some countries, saving water loss is a nice-to-have green idea,” says Chris de wet Steyn, a local expert on water wastage. “In a country like South Africa, it is not just a question of leaving a green footprint for future generations, it is an essential component of our being able to survive and thrive!”

According to a recent report in The Mercury nearly half of all of tap water in SA is being stolen, wasted or simply leaking away every year.

Record-keeping and water-metering is so shoddy that some municipalities don’t even know how much water they are using, according to the new WRC report, the most comprehensive study to date on national tap water use. The report’s compilers, WRP Consulting Engineers, based the data on 132 of the country’s 237 municipalities and fear the true figure could be as high as 47.7%

De wet Steyn, who has been engaging with both the private sector and all three tiers of the public sector for three years while working with his Australian developmental partners, believes that their company, Aquatrip, has developed the best mechanism in the world to save on water wastage.

“The Earth’s water resource is finite. There has been no water added or lost to the planet for almost 4 billion years. While its form may change, from seawater to ice to clouds to ground and underground water, the total volume of the planet’s water never changes,” says De wet Steyn.That is why it is essential for mankind to manage the resource as best it can, he adds.

The report estimates that 36.8 percent of municipal water (worth more than R7-billion) can be classified as “non-revenue water.” This term includes water that leaks out of broken pipes and also water that is not paid for (but excludes the government’s free basic water allowance). But, warn the authors, the true figure could be as high as 47.7 percent because of the massive volume of unpaid water bills written off as bad debts.

The WRC report, compiled by Ronnie McKenzie, Zama Siqalaba and William Wegelin, of WRP Consulting Engineers, covers water usage to the end of the 2010 financial year. While they accept that SA’s non- revenue water use is similar to the world average, such losses are unacceptable in a water-scarce country, they say.

“Levels of payment are very low in some parts of the country and this inadvertently has a major influence on the non-revenue water, since there is little incentive to save water when the user has no intention of paying for it,” says the report. Few municipalities set targets to reduce water losses, it adds.

“The lack of information from 55 percent of the municipalities indicates that more than half of the country’s municipalities are not even aware they have a problem,” warns the report. It says the worst offenders are rural municipalities. In several areas the researchers found that water reticulation systems had reached the end of their design life, with burst pipes now a common phenomenon.

As one of the driest nations in the world, decisive action and stronger political will was needed to solve the problem and avert a “potential water crisis.” Aquatrip’s Chris de wet Steyn, who has been in constant engagement with politicians, believes that there is political will and understanding of the problem.

“We’ve found that, while politicians and government officials understand the problem and would like to address it,” says De wet Steyn, “they believe that any solutions would be high-tech and expensive.” He says that while Aquatrip’s developmental team have found that, unlike in

Australia, the SA market has a much lower capacity to fund water-saving solutions.

While both countries share the situation whereby the appetite for consumption grows while there is no source of additional supply, “saving on the massive losses becomes the only solution.”

DeWet Steyn says that the desire for a low-tech solution in SA had driven the Australians to simplify their products without reducing the efficacy. “So, in effect, Australia has benefited from the SA side of development,” he says.

The products are now in production and available in both countries – and worldwide patents are being finalised as production ramps up. “We are even considering moving production from China to the Eastern Cape,” says De wet Steyn, “where discussions to this effect are underway.”

WRP Consulting Engineers acknowledge that all water systems around the world leak and it is not possible to eliminate leaking or revenue losses completely. The highest volumes are lost in large cities and towns, which collectively accounted for about 85 percent of tap water use.

Among the large SA cities, Cape Town’s non-revenue water losses were lowest at 25 percent, followed by Tshwane (Pretoria) at 26.5 percent, Durban at 37.5 percent and Joburg at 38.2 percent.

At the high end, in Pietermaritzburg for example, the loss was 63 percent, while Ladysmith and Estcourt both reported losses of 68 percent

“Metering, billing and cost recovery is a major problem area that requires attention. Training of councillors, as well as financial and technical personnel, is also needed,” said the report. During his State of the Nation address in 2010, the report noted, President Jacob Zuma set a target to halve water losses by 2014.

This was unlikely to happen, however, and there were signals that the volume of water loss was increasing yearly. Part of the problem was that many RDP houses and informal settlements had no water meters.

Even once these settlements have been completed, says De wet Steyn, the matter of who should be billed for consumption becomes problematic due to political or administrative will and leadership to ensure that the proper processes are followed.

It is precisely this unique problem that Aquatrip’s products have been developed to respond to, says De Wet Steyn. They meet all the human rights issues of providing some water to all – while restricting the amount that can be used by those who do not pay for it.

For example, says the report, the City of Tshwane (Pretoria) had installed bulk meters in newly-developed areas and then simply sends the bulk water bill to the Department of Human Settlements for payment.

Yet there is no standard policy for dealing with this issue in SA and many municipalities constantly at odds with their residents. “We have worked extensively with local, provincial and national authorities to be able to develop products to respond to this problem, says De Wet Steyn.

The WRC’s report said the total percentage of non-revenue water seemed to be increasing every year, while paid-for water volumes remained static. This is “of major concern as it raises doubts regarding the long-term sustainability of water services throughout SA,” says the report.

And that, says Chris de wet Steyn, is why so many politicians and government officials assisted in the development of the new device.

And, with it having been developed to suit their exact needs in such a unique manner, says Chris de wet Steyn, “that is why local authorities are showing so much interest in Aquatrip.”

Essentially, the product detects water leaks and excess consumption, cuts off the supply and alerts maintenance staff who can act to repair leaks.

The system is also programmable to restrict daily water use – ideal for local authorities who previously were unable to restrict non-paying users to the required minimum amount of water. It also ensures that careless tenants can’t waste water negligently saddling the property owner with a huge bill. All AquaTrip products are SABS approved, and have Water Mark Certification.

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