While electricity is top of mind across South Africa at the moment, water and wastewater treatment are as critical as power – if not more so – and the country faces imminent crises in these areas. However, new approaches and advanced technologies could help turn the situation around.

This is according to water and wastewater treatment experts set to participate in the upcoming IFAT Africa environmental technology trade fair in Johannesburg.

According to the South African Water and Sanitation Department, more than five million South Africans do not have access to reliable drinking water – a situation that stakeholders say could be exacerbated by the impact of load shedding on water-treatment facilities.

They note that repeated and prolonged power outages have a major impact on water and wastewater systems, putting pressure on facilities already failing and battling with ageing infrastructure as well as a lack of funding and skills resources. Power outages impact reservoir pumps, resulting in water cuts along with power outages – particularly in urban areas with high demand. More worryingly, power outages also impact the bulk water and wastewater treatment facilities.

Tumelo Gopane, MD of East Rand Water Care Company (ERWAT), which provides bulk wastewater conveyance and treatment to thousands of industries across Ekurhuleni, says that bulk water treatment facilities in the major metros have no alternative to baseload power as supplied by Eskom.

“Smaller pump stations could potentially look to alternative power, but the major plants in urban areas cannot simply procure generators or implement solar generation – they have massive power requirements,” he says.

Gopane says that while water quality processes and systems are of a high standard, distribution systems can fail during power outages, resulting in severe problems. However, South Africa’s wastewater treatment is already extremely constrained from both a capacity and effluent quality point of view, therefore power outages and associated water cuts will worsen the challenges, posing health risks to communities.

According to Gavin Bruggen, MD of Wilo Pumps: “We believe that power load shedding and water load shedding go hand in hand. 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 this will have a drastic impact on the whole system. These systems aren’t designed for intermittent use and the impact of fluctuating power will have a drastic effect on their maintenance costs.”

Wayne Taljaard, MD of WEC Projects, which provides engineered solutions in the water and wastewater treatment industry, adds: “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, for example.”

Henk Smit, founder of Vovani Products, which provides technologically advanced products for water treatment plants, says water security needs to be taken more seriously: “With power outages, one can always make a plan to generate light and charge devices. But you can’t simply improvise when there is no water. For water security, there needs to be a long-term strategy and the right equipment in place.”

So what solutions can be implemented to overcome South Africa’s wastewater crisis and looming water security issues? A range of interventions are required, including new technologies and enhanced stakeholder collaboration, say the IFAT advisory board members.

Says Taljaard: “The necessary technologies, assets and even the funding are available, but we need to see a collective appetite to turn these 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.”

Smit echoes this sentiment, noting that newer, more effective technologies are driving down operating costs and treatment plant power consumption around the world.

“The country’s conventional treatment plants may be 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,” says Smit.

He adds that, in the face of challenges such as Cape Town’s recent water crisis, a growing number of South African organisations, business campuses and even individuals are now harnessing these new technologies and moving to assure their water security by installing their own water-treatment facilities on-site.

Gopane believes that better collaboration could contribute to solutions for the sector. He says: “Lack of coordination is a key challenge. For example, the wastewater heads across the eight major metros do not have a formal collaboration forum. Imagine the progress we could make through coordinated planning and budgeting in a formal forum.”

IFAT Africa will be held from July 9 to 11 at Gallagher Convention Centre, Midrand, where topics such as the looming water crisis will be discussed.

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