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Charting a course towards smart water infrastructure

Johannesburg, 07 Jan 2021
Read time 3min 50sec
Phathizwe Malinga, Managing Director, SqwidNet
Phathizwe Malinga, Managing Director, SqwidNet

The vision of the city of the future relies heavily on the ability of municipalities to leverage technology to improve the lives of all citizens. From better traffic flow and improved security to more efficient administration and smart utilities, the idea of a smart city has a lot going for it.

Phathizwe Malinga, Managing Director at SqwidNet, comments that when there isn’t a clear definition of what a smart city is, we visualise a futuristic state and imagine technologies that seem to be always just around the corner. “We see self-driving and flying cars like air taxis taking off and landing across a hi-tech landscape. In reality, and especially for South Africa, smart cities are more about the impact we can have on the quality of life with existing technologies.”

For governments across the world, moving from the concept of a smart city to one that actually delivers has proven to be difficult. Deploying systems and infrastructure across the geographical spread of a modern city is a monumental task, far more complex than that faced by any company.

The one resource that poses a challenge for almost every local authority is water. Because of its limited nature and its importance to all life, it’s the one service that municipalities have to deliver, and also one that poses the most challenges. Across the world, minimising water loss in municipal systems is of critical concern.

This is, says Malinga, the one area where the Internet of things can have a massive impact. “Water is one of the lowest hanging fruits in realising the smart city vision, while having a huge and immediate impact. Because of this, cities understand that water is the logical place to start their transformation into a smart city.”

He explains that the biggest advantage of improved water supply is the increase in the health and life expectancy of citizens. “By delivering clean, consistent water supply, the risk of people being exposed to communicable diseases like cholera, malaria and bilharzia are minimised. At the same time, the revenue collected from water is vital to the continued ability of municipalities to expand service delivery.

“The biggest by-product of IOT is that it provides a level of visibility into water infrastructure that they’ve never had before,” he says. “This allows them to spot leaks and react quickly, before too much water is lost or citizens are left without access. By combining IOT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, it’s possible to detect issues and remedy them before too much water is lost or a customer runs up a massive water bill.”

The future is here

“In South Africa, the quote by William Gibson: ‘The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed’ is the perfect illustration of the state of smart water infrastructure,” he comments. “Some municipalities have rolled out over 50 000 smart meters this year alone, while others haven’t even started, even though it’s on their roadmap.

“The main challenges fall into one of two categories: funding and the selection of technology. Municipalities have about 80 000 homes to make smart, and this project needs to compete with other budget priorities. They also struggle with the constant evolution of technology. The longer they wait, the better, cheaper and more intelligent the systems get, potentially saving deployment and maintenance costs. Luckily, both of these issues are solvable and, with the technology available today, it’s never been easier to deploy. Locally, Buffalo City has done a fantastic job of rolling out smart meters, at a rate of one household every minute.

“Despite these challenges, it would be an injustice to paint municipalities as not having gotten off the ground in terms of IOT,” Malinga says. “A lot of municipalities have been trialling different technologies over the years, including using drive-by technology to read meters. So it’s not for lack of trying, and as the understanding of the potential increases, we’re going to see all citizens benefiting from this.”

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