Efficient water management requires 21st-century smart solutions

By Maanda Ramutumbu, Senior Manager for Accenture Resources in South Africa. He is one of the panelists at the Africa Utility Week taking place in Cape Town this week.


We are living in a world of contradictions: many utilities are still hobbled by business models that were formulated during the era of the telegram while the ratepayers they serve have evolved, become more discerning and embraced digital solutions.
The service delivery protests have become a regular feature of prime-time news, and they underscore the incapacity of many municipalities to provide basic services to ratepayers.

The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs (COGTA), Minister Zweli Mkhize, painted a grim picture recently when he revealed that no fewer than 55 municipalities had been identified as distressed or dysfunctional.

COGTA revealed that 31% of the country's municipalities were dysfunctional, another 31% were almost dysfunctional. Only 7% of municipalities were well functioning, while the remaining 31% were reasonably functional.
This is the stark reality that government and ratepayers are facing: municipalities who have the best intentions but their ability to provide basic service is handicapped by a myriad of challenges, from ageing infrastructure, increasing customer demand resulting from rapid urbanization, non-revenue water losses due to theft and leaks and lack of critical skills.
In a bid to mitigate some of the challenges utilities face, municipalities often opt to embark on large-scale infrastructure projects that are capital intensive. In 2017, The City of Johannesburg, for example, revealed that it requires R120 billion in the next ten years to address the infrastructure backlog, and approximately R415 million of this capital expenditure is earmarked to replace water pipes.

Over the years there has been an overly focus on the strategic management of physical assets such the water infrastructure as the sole manner of delivering services to the growing populace.

While the importance of large-scale public-sector projects cannot be exaggerated, such initiatives should be equally matched by the adoption of smart solutions that enable utilities to manage these capital investments better.

The radical changes in weather patterns have dwindled average rainfall and further rendered the country more susceptible to crippling droughts. According to the Department of Water & Sanitation, the South African average rainfall is about 450mm, well below the world average of approximately 860mm per year. This dwindling rainfall, coupled with a staggering 37% of potable water that is lost through leaks and ageing infrastructure, there is a need for more innovative solutions (beyond large infrastructure projects) to enable utilities to manage this scarce resource more efficiently.

We are living in an era where science and technology have permeated every industry and facet of life. Modern day technology has developed the science of analytics, which encompasses tools and methods that enable us to make informed predictions of future events using predictive algorithms.

These analytical tools can be deployed to empower utilities to manage their water resources more efficiently and provide them with the tools to take proactive steps to mitigate against the impact of events we have little control over.

Virtually all sectors of the economy are embracing a myriad of smart solutions, albeit at different paces, in order to improve efficiencies and reduce operational costs. The adoption of analytics technologies provides utilities with the tools and the know-how to optimally serve the needs of their customers in the digital age.

Analytics can provide the utility with much-needed resources to forecast water consumption based on usage patterns that are correlated with weather data to measure the quantitative water demand. These solutions will enable utilities to “buy time” and take actions that allow water supply to remain sustainable.

The use of analytics can enable utilities to manage their water supply and demand prediction better. By using analytics, the efforts by bulk water suppliers such as Rand Water, Emfuleni and Waterberg could enhance their scenario planning. By using historical data from rainfall patterns together with historical draw rates and non-revenue water stats, the dreaded ‘what if’ scenarios can be modelled for worst cases. Bulk Water Boards could then expedite alternative water sourcing options.

We are on the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, where the hot trends in technology such as big data analytics are increasingly becoming the business tools that influence decision-making and defer cash-guzzling infrastructure projects, allowing for better cash flow management for utilities.

Water utilities hemorrhage millions of rands due to non-revenue losses resulting from leaks and burst water pipes. While the adoption of smart technology solutions might not stop the leaks, nonetheless customised smart solutions can be used to identify areas of leaks and predict where the next leakages in the system will most likely to occur to allow for early prevention.

This will enable water utilities can better manage their maintenance teams spares inventories and depots. Armed with this insight, water utilities can deploy their workforce closer to where bursts are most likely to occur, thereby reducing the time of resolution that results in more water losses. Ultimately utilities can reassess if their infrastructure renewal plans match the locations where most bursts occur.

The expansive nature of water distribution networks renders treated water vulnerable to possible contamination. Contamination can occur from different sources such as water runoff on roads, in urban areas and informal settlements adjacent to rivers and streams, and poor-quality discharges from wastewater treatment works. Industries which discharge toxic content into waterways further exacerbate contamination. Poorly managed water age in the system can also lead to the poor water quality.

All the major South African metropolitan municipalities have reported an incident of water contamination in the last two years. Let me hasten to point out that the challenge of water contamination is not only confined to South Africa - recently in the US; there was a significant water contamination issue in Flint Michigan where cases of brown dirt water running from the taps were reported.

In the event of water contamination, it becomes imperative to speedily alert consumers of the imminent risk and expedite the process of restoring water quality levels.

Technology can be used to ensure that visibility of water quality improves throughout the value chain, and automated communication can be sent to affected consumers. It is inevitable that water utilities will continue to face various challenges as we go into the future. Consumer demand will continue to increase, while the availability of water from traditional sources will continue to be constrained.

Most likely the cost of doing business will continue to rise while operational budgets remain limited. It is therefore imperative that utilities find alternative solutions to overcome these challenges. Analytics can be used as a countermeasure to the problems utilities face, enabling them to provide a reliable and cost-effective service.

Though this article proposes that technology can be used to manage water utilities efficiently, it doesn’t present technology and analytics as a panacea that can cure the water shortage challenges facing the country.

Water utilities still need to replace old infrastructure and curb wastage of this precious resource. In coping with demand, utilities can ensure that they can consider other tactics to curtail demand such as rainwater harvesting, greywater reuse and groundwater. However, a small investment in analytics can be a quick win in the short term that will give the utilities the luxury of freeing already constrained budgets, to be invested in other areas.