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Water crisis needs long-term view

2022-06-15

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Saving water should be at the top of every agenda in Nelson Mandela Bay right now — but the equally urgent conversation we need to be having is about securing our future water supply beyond the current crisis.

We all know the immediate priorities are addressing water leaks and reducing consumption. Homes and businesses need to urgently cut their usage and implement whatever water-saving, rainwater harvesting and greywater re-use actions they can; and the municipality needs to urgently catch up on the ever-growing backlog of leaks.

At the same time, a longerrange view is needed, because what has brought us to this point is a crisis in municipal management that has been approaching for far longer than the past seven years of drought.

There are at least two issues here: One is to address a severe lack of capacity for water planning and management of supply and demand within the municipal departments, along with instituting a decisive programme of upgrading ageing infrastructure that has seen little attention over the years.

The second is that we need to acknowledge we live in a water-scarce area and have to safeguard against the impact of climate change by ensuring water infrastructure can withstand the effects of anticipated extreme weather, storm surges and flooding.

We should be improving disaster preparedness, securing alternative water sources and promoting water recycling and re-use. These issues require long-term planning and effective water management programmes.

The metro should employ or engage additional engineers able to address the vast array of challenges we are facing.

Over the years, the municipality has lost a substantial number of experienced technical personnel and this situation must be urgently addressed.

A short-term solution is to bring back those retired engineers to assist the municipality in managing the current crisis, and in developing medium- to long-term infrastructure planning and solutions, with additional artisans appointed to implement the plans.

While the municipality can, and does, engage external engineering companies, this is largely project-based. What is needed is updated master planning, a holistic long-term approach integrated with the metro’s overall planning.

Of the about 285 megalitres a day (MLD) of water consumed in the metro, about 173MLD is actual consumption. The balance, 40%, is lost to leaks, unauthorised use and theft, and inaccurate metering and billing.

This is not difficult to address. We need more boots on the ground identifying and repairing leaks — appointing pipeline inspectors is a possible solution to tracing leaks, and companies can be contracted in to do the repairs.

Business chamber members have volunteered their services to assist as part of an Adopt A Leak initiative, structured in a similar way to our Adopt A Substation initiative. These businesses are ready to begin with projects to address the leaks immediately.

Removing alien vegetation and regular cleaning of stormwater drains will help to protect water infrastructure in cases of flooding — another intervention that is easily and quickly implementable.

Similarly, correct meter readings and billing are a technical issue that can be resolved.

The final phase of the expansion of the Nooitgedacht treatment works is now being implemented and should be complete before year end. This will provide an extra 210MLD to the metro — more than adequate for our current needs and key to our long-term water solution.

Associated infrastructure shortcomings must be resolved to secure this longterm solution, including ensuring that the KwaNobuhle pumpstation infrastructure is connected per the current timeline of the end of June.

However, we are still at risk of having enough water but not being able to distribute it as pipelines and other infrastructure have not been adequately maintained and are reaching the end of their design life.

The Orange-Fish tunnel that transfers water from the Gariep Dam on the border of the Free State was an engineering marvel of its time when it opened in 1976, but sections are now ageing and fragile.

Similarly, the Sundays River canal, the final step and phase 4 in the transfer of water from the Gariep Dam, has long needed repairs and upgrading. If the canal fails, the Nooitgedacht water scheme fails.

Equally vital is that completion of this project will enable the increase in our daily water allocation via Nooitgedacht.

The reliability of the Orange-Fish-Sundays system is crucial not only for the Bay but for towns across the Eastern Cape, as well as the multibillion-rand citrus industry of the Sundays River Valley.

The municipality and department of water & sanitation need to be working together on major maintenance, replacement and upgrading of pipelines and infrastructure in the metro and along the system connecting us to the Gariep Dam.

The challenges about supply chain management that throttles rather than facilitates procurement need to be addressed immediately and incorporated into long-term municipal planning. The municipality’s procurement system is highly inefficient, subject to bottlenecks and delays in awarding contracts.

There is a lack of accountability and urgency to address the water crisis by getting the skills on board to do the work.

Businesses in the industrial areas have offered to use water from the Fishwater Flats treatment works for industrial use, immediately adding more potable water to the metro network. This could be implemented in under a month and have a sizeable long-term impact.

The about 150-million litres of water a day running through the municipal sewer works is an asset and could be treated for re-use, as is done all over the world, thus augmenting the municipal water supply instead of being discharged into the sea.

These are just some of the solutions that can be implemented, some short-term wins and some over the medium- to longer-term, to efficiently manage and secure our water supply in what is now looking like a bleak and dry future.

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