Change the world

20/06/2022

It’s been said that the next world war may well be fought over water. Countries are already pulling political pranks to secure inflow from upstream across their borders, while entrepreneurs scramble for first place in the race to offer solutions to a thirsty, embattled Eastern Cape.

The province’s ongoing drought has created multiple business opportunities, as well as innovation in related fields - new products and schemes for smart and efficient delivery of the most basic necessity, water, to communities.

The solutions are varied, and some won’t work long-term; yet those who can are paying top dollar for supply in the short term, regardless of the much-touted 70-million litres of water flowing in from the Nooitgedacht Scheme Phase 3.

Government continually points to the short-term solution of reducing water use, but irrigation-related agricultural practices consume around 60% of total available water – and we can lose up to half of that through evapotranspiration.

In an urban context, then, we must investigate how we’re using water, and what for. This starts in the home, with simple devices such as plastic water sprayers on each household tap, for example.

Capturing and storing roof and gutter water in rainwater harvesting tanks is a popular solution, and boosts availability during periods of low flow and pressure. Some households have installed a system connecting boreholes for pumping when tank water levels are too low – although pressure problems mean small pumps are a necessity.

Water recycling is a growing trend, and easy to start. It could be as simple as placing a bucket in the shower, using the run-off to clean the home or water the garden.

What we put into our water is as important as saving it. Choose compostable and biodegradable products, as this has a direct impact on water quality, and a build-up of toxic products could contaminate water supplies long-term.

New way of life

Water reduction can only work if coupled with lifestyle changes, such as altering garden landscapes – use less or no grass, replacing these with indigenous plants and shrubs. This practice, called xeriscaping, helps reduce irrigation needs and lowers water consumption.

Installation of drip irrigation systems also targets water delivery at the base of the plants directly to the roots. This could be coupled with mulching, to reduce evaporation from soil surfaces.

The Nelson Mandela Metropole has implemented water saving campaigns and flow restrictors in an effort to help curb consumption. This, together with “water shedding” to ration flows, is coupled with multiple drives to stop leaks – but complaints about the slow pace of plugging these leaks continue.

These municipal interventions are excellent ideas, in theory, but need surgical precision during execution to effectively reduce leakages and wastage from reticulation systems – a situation that can account for up to 40% loss in some urban settings.

What about boreholes?

Large-scale drilling of boreholes, particularly in some suburbs, such as Summerstrand, might not be the best solution, either.

Cumulative abstraction has greater impact over time, owing to the public’s limited understanding of groundwater reservoirs.

Some side-effects in the coastal aquifer include ingress of salt water, reduction of water quality and even potential slumping of soil masses. This leads to issues around home foundation stability and could be devastating, if not curbed.

This is cause for concern – approximately 1000 wells have been drilled in the Summerstrand area alone. The rest of the city, on the other hand, has drilled in the Coega vicinity, with a view to large-scale supply. Here, however, the issue is water quality, and a plant and pipeline must be constructed to deliver this water to the municipality for potable purposes. This medium-term will help to alleviate system strain, but needs to be in tandem with other water-saving initiatives.

Looking ahead

Some long-term solutions have been explored by multiple stakeholders, including government.  The Umzimvubu project is one of these and has been priced at a whopping R15-billion. It’s one of many multi-million-rand projects sitting at various stages of the construction phase. Some are incomplete or over budget, and little has been done to reactivate them in the Eastern Cape. One possible future project is also Nooitgedacht Phase 4.

Another long-term option is Managed Aquifer Recharge. This involves pumping  water into an aquifer, allowing the water to be “banked” – stored underground – for later use. This minimises the impact from evaporation and thus reduces water losses.

Water can also be recycled from various sources, rather than wasted. This recycled water could be drawn from stormwater or even wastewater treatment plants and then be put back into the aquifer.

Ultimately, service delivery, honesty and properly trained people in the right positions will, hopefully, lead to improvement, medium to long-term. The fact that legislation and policies should be a catalyst, rather than a hindrance, is key. This is particularly true when examining Supply Chain and the inefficacies around delivering the correct materials for the job within the specified time, and limiting exorbitant costs. This is critical for long-term maintenance and longevity of assets, which are the backbone for water supply in this country.

This article was written by Senior Lecturer and Geohydrologist in the Department of Geosciences at Nelson Mandela University, Dr Gaathier Mahed.

 

Contact information
Dr Gaarthier Mahed
Executive Deputy Dean: Faculty of Science
Tel: 041 504 2243
Gaathier.Mahed@mandela.ac.za