“Digitizing the water sector would be a major step towards building sustainable water infrastructure in South Africa”
AfricaLive In Conversation with Lebo Leshabane, CEO of IX Engineers.
South Africa faces myriad challenges around water, including availability, reliability and quality.
Technology is a key component in making the water sector sustainable. We may have the structural infrastructure required in most cases but we lack a lot of technological infrastructure.
Technological infrastructure can help us measure and anticipate future trends and needs. The analytics part is missing partly because we don’t have enough data on water that’s being harvested and stored. Digitizing the water sector would be a major step towards building sustainable water infrastructure in the country.
The water issue was brought up many times in all the provinces in the build-up to the last general election. There hasn’t been a clear implementation plan to follow up the national master plan that was presented. If you look at localized networks, most of them predate the drawing up of the master plan. The question becomes how then do we integrate everything that we need to achieve the desired outcomes.
As a nation we are good at drawing up plans, but often can not implement those plans.
There are several factors which impede implementation including political, organizational and even funding barriers. If we are able to make everyone from the local level to the national government level fully aware of what their role is in implementing the master plan, then we will get somewhere.
We must be very area-specific on the solutions with an emphasis on how solutions will be arrived at.
The funding part is critical because unlike in electricity where there is a standard operating procedure on how to fund projects, the water sector is not so supported. We need to go further and decentralize the water sector and avoid centralizing the industry too much. We are where we are because of wrong decisions informed by wrong information as a result of poor data. If we don’t change things in the next five years, we will incur huge losses as a country.
The question becomes how then do we integrate everything that we need to achieve the desired outcomes. Eskom’s looming problems were clear about 15 years ago and not much was done to avert the crisis. The same issues persist with the water sector that if unaddressed will lead to dire consequences.
According to the DWS report, approximately 33% of the wastewater treatment plants in the country are fully functional.
The status quo has persisted for over five years and it’s been painful to watch. The impending establishment of the National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency, which has been reported to be at an advanced stage would alleviate the perpetuating deterioration of the treatment plants.
If we can have a situation where water infrastructure upgrade can be prioritized through private sector participation in the design, fund, construct and O&M of the assets. The upgraded infrastructure to consist of sensors that would generate data for the development of an IoT platform that would aid in the efficient management of the assets. Such arrangements would present win-win outcomes for all stakeholders.
Lack of data integration is one of the main problems. The system currently is so cumbersome for only one institution to handle. Technology will be instrumental in addressing this problem to ensure a seamless flow of data from local to national government. Tech solutions would warrant a better understanding of the data to develop a clear implementation plan with timelines and resource allocation.
Embracing artificial intelligence and data management will reduce the perception of risk in the eyes of investors.
When potential financiers understand the challenges of the country, the policy framework that support the sector, the value add to the economy and the risks associated with the investment, it will boost the investment confidence in the country . When data becomes easily accessible to everyone, it will be easy to identify the infrastructure goals of South Africa. Investors can benefit from this because the goals will be established to withstand changes in leadership.
Smart materials and green infrastructure are needed to move us towards sustainability.
Throughout the infrastructure value chain, there is a substantial lack of smart materials. We had a session with the Vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg about the future of infrastructure, and smart materials were top on the agenda. We are exploring collaboration opportunities to further develop this area.
Partnerships are vital for South Africa’s future.
Public-Private Partnerships are the future for us and I believe we will have reasons to feel confident soon. Climate change has been a major discussion and as sensitization goes on, our industry can respond properly to help set ourselves up for the future.