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Rand Water pins hopes on emerging tech to be more sustainable

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South African water utility Rand Water sees the internet of things (IOT) as more than a technology trend, but rather a foundational technology that can deliver material value and sustained competitive advantage.

This is according to Mogan Padayachee, innovation lead at Rand Water, speaking at the first of a series of webinars hosted by Deloitte.

The focus of yesterday’s webinar was “accelerated digital government and governments’ broader role in cyber”. The premise for the webinars stems from the global Deloitte Centre for Government Insights, which has been running similar events over the last five years.

According to Padayachee, Rand Water is using digital technologies to create a competitive advantage with some of the players in the market.

He added the water utility has an innovation hub, housed within the Rand Water institute, to come up with digital water solutions.

“We have over 100 game-changing digital transformation projects, which vary from the use of satellite technologies – to detect leaks from drinking water pipelines – to remote monitoring and management of our plants and operations.

“We are leveraging big data to develop a first of its kind simulation model for water quality coming into our plants and networks. We’re transforming our pipeline grid into smart grids where we are leveraging IOT to be able to measure and monitor water quality in real-time.

“We’re leveraging on digital twins and virtual reality…the technologies that are out there, we’re adopting at a very fast pace to ensure we’re able to embrace the challenges that are posed by COVID-19 and create a more sustainable water utility.”

Commenting on digital advances at Rand Water, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Padayachee pointed out that nothing’s better than a crisis to spur innovation.

“There are many potential opportunities out there to create resilience and sustainability in a water utility,” he stated. “COVID-19 has certainly forced us to rethink our business and operating models. It’s opened the door to innovative new methods for monitoring and managing our plants and operations, ensuring business continuity and serving our customers.

“In particular, we’re increasingly turning to smart water technologies, which is data-driven hardware and software to remain connected not only to employees within the business, but to our critical assets, our customers, whilst maintaining physical distance.

“Data is everyone’s business. Don’t have data siloes, use data to reimagine your entire value-chain. What we’ve seen is that crisis- or needs-driven innovation is far more easily adopted than value-driven innovation.”

Tapped out

In recent years, South African households have increasingly had to face water supply and quality challenges.

This week, reportsemerged that Gauteng was facing yet another water crisis, as Rand Water lost 60% of its production capacity at its Zuikerbosch water treatment works.

Municipalities and water suppliers have also cautioned residents to use water sparingly amid rising water constraints and ongoing drought in parts of the country.

Responding to how technology can assist with customer-facing challenges, such as water leaks and compromised water quality, Padayachee noted Rand Water is working with the municipalities to create an integrated model.

“As a bulk water utility, we supply water to our municipalities and directly to some industries, etc. We want to be able to ensure we have a completely end-to-end view of the entire network, reservoir levels, water quality, etc.

“That integration, which we call monitoring and integration, is now starting to gather momentum, and we’ll soon be able to see a very seamless approach from source to tap, in terms of water usage in South Africa.”

He indicated it’s important to maintain strong agreements and relations with municipal customers, as well as demonstrate the water supplied into the municipality’s reservoir meets the agreed quality standards.

“The internal water standards that have been provided by Rand Water are higher than the World Health Organisation standards. We have monitoring points and samplers that collect samples from customers’ reservoirs.

“We are able to demonstrate that when we do supply water, it meets the highest quality standards and once it gets into the reticulation network, it becomes the responsibility of the municipality. One needs to look at the infrastructure condition, corrosion, leakages, illegal connections, etc, which is beyond the boundaries of Rand Water.

“Certainly, through digital transformation and data analytics platforms, we are able to see the clear segregation and segmentation.”

Tech to the rescue

The role of tech and innovation in solving SA’s water challenges has also been touted by water and sanitation minister Senzo Mchunu.

Speaking at the 5th Water Research Commission Symposium last week, Mchunu encouraged stakeholders in the water sector to rally behind ensuring water supply exceeds demand.

He further urged the Water Research Commission to continue addressing water quantity and quality challenges through innovation and new technologies.

Mchunu said sustained investments in cutting-edge innovative technologies and solutions will transform sanitation.

“Technologies that can use less water or no water at all are the future of our country, the continent, and the global community,” he stated. “As the water sector, we need to embrace technological innovations and recognise them as the game-changer we need in order to secure our water, now and in the future.”

The minister concluded by calling on the sector to be open to new ideas and approaches to deliver water services, stressing the importance of embracing the fourth industrial revolution and new ways of doing things.

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