A question we shouldn’t have to ask

Which would you rather be without – electricity or water?

You may notice a theme running through this issue: power, or, more specifically, the lack of it…

With the rolling blackouts (or load shedding, as it’s more commonly known) plaguing the country during the early months of the year, it seems this was the only topic of conversation around the watercooler each day as South Africans were up in arms over sudden power cuts, uncoordinated load shedding schedules and the future of the nation.

As if it weren’t enough to lose productivity, due to interrupted workdays, and having to spend additional money on entertainment, due to scuppered weekend plans, headlines soon changed from Eskom’s inability to provide a constant supply of energy, to an otherwise unforeseen consequence – a very serious consequence…

From South Africa’s energy security focus soon changed to its water security. Yes, the country’s ability to manage its water and wastewater treatment was put at risk due to the power cuts!

Power outages impact reservoir pumps, resulting in water cuts along with power outages especially in urban areas with high demand. Power outages also impact the bulk-water and wastewater treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne health and environmental hazards.

Experts in the field of water provision are justifiably outspoken.

“The process of supplying water is critical and forms part of basic human rights. Without a stable power supply, this becomes almost impossible. If load shedding is increased, the whole system will be drastically impacted.

“These systems aren’t designed for intermittent use and the impact of fluctuating power will have a drastic effect on the maintenance cost of these systems,” comments Gavin Bruggen, MD of Wilo Pumps.

The question of maintenance is another threat to the country’s water systems and facilities, which are already under pressure from ageing infrastructure, together with a lack of funding and skills resources.

Wayne Taljaard, MD of WEC Projects, which provides engineering solutions in the water and wastewater treatment industry, comments: “The crisis we face isn’t a result of load shedding alone. Load shedding is just another compounding factor on top of a range of issues, such as an apparent lack of will to address key problems, and no punitive measures for those who discharge effluent into rivers.”

What’s to be done, then? Alternative power sources, such as generators or solar systems, might seem obvious, but they are not viable for major plants in urban areas that have significant power requirements. The experts suggest that investment in water provision is the first solution.

“The necessary technologies, assets and even the funding are available, but we need to see a collective appetite to turn them into solutions. Assets aren’t being fully utilised, and there are plants running at a fraction of their capacity. By retrofitting existing plants with new technologies, we could make a great deal of progress,” Taljaard suggests.

“Some of the  country’s conventional treatment plants are 30 or 40 years old, but far better technologies now exist to address new influences in water, reduce chlorination, take up less space and reduce odours,” adds Smit.

Tumelo Gopane, MD of East Rand Water Care Company, says: “Lack of coordination is a key challenge. For example, those heading up wastewater systems across the eight major metros do not have a formal collaboration forum. Imagine the progress that could be made through coordinated planning and budgeting in a formal forum.”

Yes, imagine… Henk Smit, founder of Vovani Products, which provides technologically advanced products for water treatment plants, sums it up best: “They say with power outages one can always make a plan to generate light and charge devices, but one can’t simply improvise when there is no water. For water security, there has to be a long-term strategy and the right equipment in place.”

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