It feels as though the world has lived the last seven months with bated breath – waiting to see what new COVID-19 related consequence comes our way. In the South African water-infrastructure space, it has become clear that – in the midst of face masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing - the pandemic has created an opportunity for engineers to become innovative in addressing the array of challenges that have arisen as a result.
Water utilities in South Africa have numerous limitations on resources. Prioritisation has therefore been key in charting our actions. The nationwide approach has seemingly been to address the immediate impacts of the virus by reducing the risks facing operational staff in order to maintain service delivery and, in parallel, increasing the coverage of service delivery whilst operating under largely remote working conditions.
The pandemic has created an opportunity for engineers to become innovative in addressing the array of challenges that have arisen as a result
In Ethekwini, senior management personally visited operational depots in order to ensure that sufficient protective wear and sanitisers were available for their staff. This engagement improved awareness and motivational levels within teams. Shifts were also rescheduled to allow for greater standby capacity in anticipation of teams potentially requiring isolation at some point in the future.
In a country where a significant portion of the population resides in informal settlements, the provision of clean water and access to sanitation is critical. Bhavna Soni (Deputy Director at eThekwini Water and Sanitation) indicated that there was an immediate reallocation of internal budgets and prioritisation of fast-tracked procurement channels to improve service delivery within compromised communities, as well as other measures.
Image provided by Samista Jugwanth
The use of innovative methods to solve both old and new problems has been encouraged. WhatsApp (a social media application) has been used by eThekwini to allow users to remotely report pipe breakages, leaks and meter readings using GPS tagged photographs. Public response has proved this to be an effective tool. Ronald Brown (Wastewater Manager at Drakenstein Municipality) and his team have been collaborating with engineering and advisory consultancy, Zutari to pilot the testing of wastewater for the COVID-19 virus - similarly to studies being conducted in the Netherlands, Australia and USA. Benefits of this approach include reduced costs and broader monitoring range in comparison to personal DNA testing.
In a country where a significant portion of the population resides in informal settlements, the provision of clean water and access to sanitation is critical
The pandemic has highlighted the need to improve the long-term resiliency of our infrastructure. Among the many resiliency measures that the South African public sector has considered exploring or implementing, embracing technology and the impetus to build and/or improve the Digital Strategy within each organisation has gained the most buy-in and traction during this time.
This strategy examines how digital technology can address the requirements of the water utility’s business model and its organisational structure, how it interacts with its stakeholders – as well as the digitising of internal processes and systems. The WhatsApp reporting tool mentioned above is an example of this in a microcosm. Moving away from paper-based administrative methods is a further example.
Neeren Govender (Water Client Director at Zutari) and the Zutari team have been working with municipal water clients in order develop a web-based reporting dashboard that collects, processes and analyses data collected throughout the water pipeline: at source, water treatment works, bulk distribution, reticulation, wastewater treatment works and at discharge environment. The trends and results of the automated analysis can then be used as a decision support tool in order to effectively plan, manage and operate the complete water and sanitation system in a specified area.
COVID-19 has forced us to clarify what is important to us as a nation. The foremost concern of our municipal engineers in water utilities has been the welfare of their staff and the communities that they serve. This speaks to a very South African principle of Ubuntu: I am because we are. It is a Nguni word that celebrates our humanity, empathy and kindness. With this premise governing our actions – coupled with the innovation and creativity that seems to have thrived under these trying circumstances – I am certain that South Africa will emerge from this crisis as a more resilient nation.