South Africa’s infrastructure needs refurbishment to restore functionality, as well as a digital refit to enable a new cyber management regime as the local water industry enters the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), says national water knowledge hub Water Research Commission (WRC) CEO Dhesigen Naidoo.
“The South African market is highly sophisticated and it is only a matter of time before customers want real-time water management. Subsequently, cybersecurity will become mission critical and our capacity in this domain will require big investments in the short term.”
He says innovation is the only way through which Africa will come close to the United Nation’s (UN’s) Sustainable Development Goals – adopted by UN member States in 2015 – by 2030 and achieve reasonable water security.
Goal six of seventeen aims to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, and contains various subgoals.
Naidoo warns that Africa will not achieve these goals, even in 50 years, let alone 11 years, with conventional water-borne sewage.
“New waterless or low-water sanitation solutions with off-grid local waste treatment and beneficiation will ensure universal access to safe and dignified sanitation, while the additional benefits of value-added products from the treatment of the waste will result in genuine entrepreneurship opportunities at the most local level and industrialisation opportunities at scale,” he tellsEngineering News.
The future of water security in Africa will also depend on new infrastructure for water recycling; the treatment of pollution hazards, such as acid mine water; localised point-source water treatment and a new cadre of water professionals, from water bailiffs in the most rural villages to cyber engineers in the large city centres.
“Add to this the benefits of remote sensing and Earth observation – the gathering of information about Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems – and Africa will have better tools to plan for, monitor, evaluate and enforce water security,” adds Naidoo.
He says there are many international examples where innovation has helped address water security and the WRC works with various international partners such as US private foundation the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, business-led partnership and platform addressing the global sanitation crisis the Toilet Board Coalition, partners in the International Water Association and members of the Global Water Research Coalition.
However, some of the best examples are in South Africa, with WRC’s case studies used worldwide to upgrade water systems.
“We have demonstrator sites for novel recycling techniques, the best desalination solutions globally and 4IR water management using Earth observation tools that allow for intelligent irrigation and pollution monitoring. Our key problem is an inability to scale up and commercialise,” highlights Naidoo.
He says the State needs to become the first adopter and buyer of these new innovations.
“This will not only solve the challenge of the provision of basic needs by government but also sufficiently mitigate risk to encourage further private-sector investment and industrialisation.”
WRC has researched smart new entrepreneurship and business development mechanisms such as its social franchising partnerships. The initiative enables entrepreneurs to start up a sanitation business from a zero base and provides them with access to a support mechanism.
“We have had a very successful pilot project in the Eastern Cape, funded by multilateral development finance institution African Development Bank,” says Naidoo.
To scale up this model into Africa, the African Water Facility, which provides grants and technical assistance to implement innovative water projects and raise investment for water projects throughout Africa, is considering funding pilots in the five African regions.
“These pilot projects will be revolutionary for Africa’s water security and economic development,” states Naidoo.
The fourth WRC Symposium – held last month at the Sandton Convention Centre, in Johannesburg, Gauteng – themed Innovation in Every Drop, provided a platform to discuss the adoption of innovation to tackle Africa’s water security issues.
The event was significantly oversubscribed, says Naidoo. Fourteen countries participated, with delegates comprising researchers, academics and innovators, as well as members of the business and investment sectors, regulators and government.
“This was the right mix to have the total innovation value chain discussion.”
Opinion leaders and influencers were also present, with Naidoo highlighting the presence of Toilet Board Coalition executive director Cheryl Hicks.
Also present was Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation deputy director Doulaye Kone, Sri Lanka-based nonprofit research organisation International Water Management Institute head Claudia Sadorff and Ivy League Columbia University environmental engineer Kartik Chandran – “one of the world’s leading minds in wastewater treatment”, says Naidoo.
“In addition, Water and Sanitation Deputy Minister David Mahlobo attended and rapidly became a favourite with the extremely talented youth who participated in the symposium’s Hackethon.
“It was a milestone event that set us on course to develop a new narrative for water in South Africa, Africa and the world,” concludes Naidoo.