By Marcus Thulsidas, Director: Business Development, Utility Systems

The United Nations (UN) estimates that by 2030 Africa’s population will have grown to 1.68 billion people. That’s the same year that the UN expects the world to face a 40% water supply shortage – and it’s only 11 years away!

Not a drop to drink may sound dramatic, but many African countries already face water supply challenges. Of sub-Saharan Africa’s 800 million inhabitants, an estimated 300 million live in water-scarce environments.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2019.
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Some people travel for six hours every day to collect water. SubSaharan Africa loses 40 billion hours per year collecting water, leaving little time to earn a living, thus contributing to poverty.

Something has to change. Specifically, the business strategy of water management has to change if we’re to meet the demands being placed on a finite resource by population growth, mass urbanisation, ageing infrastructure, and climate change. Enter digital water technologies.

Compared to other sectors like energy and manufacturing, the water industry has been slow to adopt digital solutions. But since there has been a greater realisation that the wells could one day run dry, interest in technology’s ability to help us better collect, treat, distribute, and consume water is growing. The ultimate goal is to reduce demand and to manage supply better, and Africa is in a position to leapfrog the digital path followed by other industries and regions.

Data-driven decisions

Water technology has evolved. Smart devices and sensors are cheaper and offer more functionality. While we’re still a way off from the tech utopia of using the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and automation to track every drop, a right starting place in Africa’s water digitalisation journey is to implement smart bulk water meters.

Take South Africa as an example. Municipalities lose up to 35% of bulk water due to leaks and theft. Based on current demand projections, the country could face a water deficit of approximately 17% by 2030. To address this, the Department of Water and Sanitation has proposed reducing demand by 15% and halving water losses. But, to do this, it needs access to better data, which is currently lacking due to weak monitoring systems.

Until now, South Africa – and every other African country – has reacted to water issues, like infrastructure breakdowns and leaks that could go undetected or unreported for days before taking action, while billions of litres are lost. Operating in a constant reactionary state leaves little time for innovation and negatively impacts decision-making because stakeholders lack access to a correct version or the big picture of its waterscape.

Better control with digitally-enabled devices

Bulk water management devices deliver efficient water management and prepaid metering solutions for customers who use larger bore meters – like zonal meters in suburban areas, housing estates, schools, offices, factories, and government departments.

These devices can be configured to dispense a fixed quantity of water, giving the supplier better management around the amount that will be required during a given period. Likewise, when customers are aware of their limit, they are more likely to start thinking differently about consumption and even implement solutions of their own, like greywater systems. With bulk water devices, municipalities and water boards can start collecting accurate data about supply and demand in their areas, through automated meter readings (AMR) sent via radio signal to fixed or mobile data collectors. They can use this information to record consumption and detect leaks and tampering.

The implementation of AMR frees up time and resources to allow municipalities to move from being reactionary service providers to be able to predict and prevent issues and respond accordingly. The obvious outcome is that, if we can prevent leaks and infrastructure breakdowns, we’ll reduce unnecessary water loss, increase the reliability of supply, and better manage demand.

Technology delivers benefits for all

The move to adopt water technologies is being driven by these challenges on the one hand, and consumer expectations around sustainability and responsible consumption on the other. Organisations in every industry are moving towards more customer-centric business models, and the water industry is no different. In developed markets, water utilities are leveraging technology to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with consumers.

Using smart digital communication and engagement tools enables the delivery of billing information, leak identification, resolution notifications, and water usage insight directly to utilities. For utilities, self-service applications reduce service costs by proactively addressing customer concerns – reducing the need for on-site visits and improving cash flow. That’s because technicians can spot technical issues early and understand why delivered water was lost. For industrial users, having access to consumption data will encourage the creation of new ways to limit water use, so that they can save money. They’ll learn from other sectors and come up with new, creative business models.

Setting the digital stage

Smart digital technologies, like bulk water management devices, set the foundation for utilities to start applying data science and artificial intelligence to the issues of water supply and demand. On a larger scale, data derived from the Internet of Things and sensors can help utilities to better allocate water to agriculture and manufacturing – the two largest water consumer sectors. Utility departments will also be empowered to make better decisions around water quality, where to build new catchment facilities, and how to supply water to rural and remote areas.

Water technology will allow emerging economies in Africa to move away from expensive centralised water and wastewater systems towards off-grid, localised systems, allowing those living in poverty to begin to regain their dignity. As Africa feels the impact of rising temperatures and growing populations, it needs access to accurate, real-time data, and flexible, resilient water systems that can anticipate and monitor changes in circumstances. Acting on this data can lead to unprecedented economic development, business growth, and social wellbeing for a range of stakeholders.

For decades, we’ve lived as if water were an unlimited resource. Now we know that water decisions can no longer be left to chance and that everyone has a role to play in reducing demand and helping to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 6: to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. ESI

References

• Water Tight 2.0: The top trends in the global water sector. Deloitte

• Population 2030: Demographic challenges and opportunities for sustainable development planning

• National Water and Sanitation Draft Master Plan. Department of Water and Sanitation, South Africa