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Hlengiwe Cele 

Water loss reduction: a daunting task worth pursuit by municipalities

Many municipalities struggle to appreciate the necessity and benefits of dealing with water losses in their distribution systems. It is very common for municipal officials to hesitate in allocating a budget for repair, even when a leak will run unattended to for weeks or months causing the municipal bill to go up by thousands of rands.

This issue was discussed at the very first Water Research Commission (WRC) municipal roadshow held on 20 August 2015 at the City of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality’s Germiston offices.  The roadshow aimed to engage municipal officials on smart management of water distribution systems. 

Water distribution systems consist of an interconnected series of pipes, storage facilities, and components that convey drinking water. Water distribution systems therefore represent the final barrier between water treatment and delivery of the treated drinking water to consumers; thus, as pointed out by Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, WRC Research Manager for Water Use and Waste Management, maintaining the integrity of these systems is vital in ensuring water safety and sustainable supply. However, as emphasised by Dr Ronnie McKenzie of WRP Engineers, “The maintenance of water distribution systems requires a budget and real effort from the municipality since it often involves excavation of pipelines and repair where necessary.”

In order to support legislation and encourage efficient use of available water resources in South Africa, the WRC has initiated and supported numerous projects over the past 15 years. For example, the organisation has developed a number of low-cost software solutions in order to assist water suppliers in understanding and managing their non-revenue water.

Speaking at the roadshow, Prof Kobus van Zyl of the University of Cape Town stressed the importance of convincing consumers to use water more wisely, since some parts of South Africa are already experiencing severe water shortages.  Van Zyl further said, “Municipalities depend on water sales for a significant part of their income, and thus one of their most important functions is to develop a robust information management system to calculate and print accurate water bills for consumers to understand their water usage data”.

In order to deal with the water loss challenge, the City of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality embarked on an indigent on-site water conservation and leak repair project in 2013.  Dumisani Gubuza, Executive Manager for Water Demand Management in the City of Ekurhuleni, indicated that 73.7% of these households consumed above 9 kℓ per month, with 44.1% consuming between 16 and 60 kℓ per month. It made sense therefore to target indigent households consuming above 9 kℓ, but most especially those consuming above 60 kℓ per month, for on-site water conservation and leak repair project.

The project entailed water fixtures within indigent properties that were damaged, or had reached the end of their service life, which were repaired or replaced by the assigned contractor. This included repairing leaks within the connection pipe from the meter, leaking taps, leaking meters, leaking toilets and leaking geysers; replacing non-functional meters, toilets, and non-water-saving toilet cisterns with water-saving cisterns; and ensuring all meters were readable and active on the billing system. While the leak repair project was ongoing, property residents were informed about the importance of saving water, and the impact of water wastage on their municipal accounts, as well as of their responsibility to thereafter maintain their household plumbing and repair leaks.

Apart from the issue of water metering, the roadshow looked at the existing body of knowledge on water distribution systems, the product of WRC-funded research over many years. For example, grey-water from showers, baths, hand basins, laundry tubs and washing machines can provide a solution to our water-scarcity challenges. A joint pilot study, conducted by the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and Cape Town, is proving that the use of grey-water can be an effective way of saving our high-quality water.

The roadshow delegates expressed interest in further discussions on matters pertaining to water reuse, acid mine drainage and greywater reticulation systems.

During the roadshow the findings of a 2012 WRC study conducted on 132 municipalities throughout South Africa were shared: this study estimated that the current proportion of total water use made up by non-revenue water for the country as a whole is 36.8%. Of this, 25.4% is considered to be due to physical leakages (real losses). This figure is similar to the estimated world average of 36.6% but is considered high in comparison to other developing countries. Similar WRC assessments were undertaken in 2001, 2005 and 2007. This study is the most comprehensive to date on non-revenue water in SA, and was a joint effort by the Department of Water and Sanitation (then the Department of Water Affairs) and the WRC.

The study confirmed that non-revenue water remains the product of many factors, including poor planning, limited financial resources to implement the necessary programmes, poor infrastructure asset maintenance and lack of capacity. However, several additional problem areas were also identified. One of the greatest inhibitors to the introduction of successful water demand management in many municipalities is the lack of proper auditing and documentation of the various interventions.

Article compiled by Hlengiwe Cele, Stakeholder Liaison email:hlengiwec@wrc.org.za

Roadshow delegates
Dumisani Gubuza Ekurhuleni Executive Manager: Water Demand Management, Policies & Standards
Prof Kobus van Zyl, University of Cape Town
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