South Africa is currently facing the perfect storm of a failing water supply. Outdated infrastructure, poor maintenance, prolonged droughts, increasing population, lack of investment, and a skills shortage, have led to contaminated drinking water, raw sewage spewing into rivers, and run-down water treatment plants.
Earlier this year, 31 people were confirmed dead from a cholera outbreak in Hammanskraal, a small town north of Pretoria, where Watericon subsequently installed a water treatment plant at a school that did not have access to safe, clean drinking water.
The South African government’s latest Blue Drop Report, which assesses the state of all drinking water systems across the country, revealed an alarming decline in water quality and management. Roughly half the sites assessed failed to meet acceptable biological and chemical standards with regards to drinking water.
Centralised vs decentralised solutions
A centralised solution is a large-scale water treatment plant servicing surrounding areas. These plants have the capacity to process enormous volumes of water, while the transport of water to and from the facility occurs via an expansive distribution network. The main advantage of centralised systems is the efficiencies gained through economies of scale. They are commonly used in developed nations all over the world, and in South Africa for municipal water supply. However, the major disadvantage of this type of system is that it is complex and costly to maintain, requiring large capital investments and highly skilled expertise. It’s also difficult to measure and record upstream and downstream water quality because of the vast piping system.
A decentralised approach involves smaller-scale water treatment solutions that are applied directly to individual facilities or communities. They typically consist of modular units or packaged plants that are mobile. The main advantage is that they are designed and tailored for one specific application, and installed directly on site, meaning easy reticulation of wastewater without being piped over vast distances. Decentralised solutions require significantly lower capital costs, and have a much shorter lead time. They can be scaled up or down at any time, and have a small geographical footprint.
Decentralised solutions can help solve current water challenges in South Africa by providing a relatively quick, cost-effective, targeted solution delivered on-site
For example, at Capricorn College in Limpopo, a plant we designed and installed treats borehole water to be used as drinking water by the community of over 1000 people. The equipment is also used for chemical engineering students to learn how to operate the plant.
Small footprint, big impact
Mauritius recently turned to a decentralised solution to produce clean drinking water. Although the island has access to seawater, desalination plants are costly. Luckily, the island also has abundant rainfall, and 11 self-contained units that treat captured rainwater to drinking water standards, currently supply 260 000 residents.
Mines in far-flung places are also regular users of decentralised solutions. At one such mine in the DRC, the camp and surrounding community had no option but to drink polluted water from the river, causing people to fall ill. Just two twenty-foot containers purified this water, supplying drinking water to over fifty thousand people.
Industry can also turn to decentralised solutions to reuse and recycle water. A local automotive plant was able to save around 21 million litres of water a year by treating their effluent to be reused in the system.
The importance of operations and maintenance
Similarly to servicing a vehicle, a water treatment plant needs to be maintained to increase its lifespan and make sure it functions optimally and safely. This is where many South African municipalities are falling short, often using a run-to-failure approach. When running a water treatment plant, it’s important to know upfront who is going to maintain the plant. Does there need to be a laboratory and full-time staff on site for monitoring water quality?
At some plants we’ve installed there is a full team of people running it – from operators to mechanics and technicians, working in shifts to ensure equipment is working optimally. They regularly test and monitor water, and implement weekly preventative maintenance with schedules, job cards, inspections, and audits.
The Blue Drop report has highlighted the many challenges facing South Africa’s water sector, but unless regulations are enforced, not much will change.
With willingness from government to decentralise some of our water infrastructure, combined with private sector investment in skills training and capital expenditure, South Africa can ensure our communities aren’t left in the ‘poop’.