Water-shedding is a concept borrowed from the electricity sector due to the country’s dwindling water supply.

However, according to Jacques Laubscher, senior associate integrated infrastructure and business development manager at GIBB, a black-owned engineering consulting firm, the necessity of its implementation can be reduced significantly if consumers start valuing water as a commodity.

“There is a difference between water-shedding and water conservation. Water-shedding deals with the management of the provision of water by a water service provider, while water conservation deals with the way the consumer manages his use of water. The former deals with supply and the latter demand,” he said.

What is water-shedding and when is it implemented?

Laubscher explained, “To understand water-shedding, one needs to understand the process of providing consumable water from the source to our taps.

“The first step is extracting water from a water source and treating it if required. This is done to improve the quality of the water to an acceptable standard before it can be conveyed and stored in reservoirs.”

During drought, the availability of water resources decreases, which means less water is available for treatment and storage in reservoirs.

“Water-shedding may be necessary when the rate at which water is extracted over an extended period of time from a reservoir overtakes the rate at which it can be filled.

“The water supplied from reservoirs are closed off for a limited time, often at night, to allow the required storage volumes to recover,” he said.

The value of water

Because water is deemed by many to be a service and not a commodity, consumers often don’t apportion value to it.

“An example is in rural areas, where people often do not have the convenience of having water delivered to their homes. They fetch their water, from a communal tap or a stream, perhaps. Even if they get a Free Basic Water allocation, they understand and respect the value of water as a commodity and not just as a service.

“However, once water is provided to your doorstep, its value decreases and it becomes just another service,” Laubscher said.

He explained how consumers’ mind-set changes, when the cost of a service increases.

“When the price of electricity increases, people start taking action. They now view electricity as a commodity and not a service and apportion value to it. They will take measures to save electricity and curtail costs, for example, by switching off geysers and installing energy saving devices,” said Laubscher.

He emphasised the necessity for consumers to apply water conservation and demand management principles in their daily lives.

Laubscher said, “If water is not conserved and managed responsibly by consumers, it could lead to water shortages. This has a knock-on effect, often resulting in a decrease in revenue to a local authority, as consumers may then rebel paying for water they don’t receive.

“A lack of sufficient revenue severely affects a local authority’s ability to operate and maintain their water infrastructure, thereby further exacerbating the problem. In effect, the consumer then becomes the architect of his own problem.”

Infrastructure

Inadequate water system operational and maintenance management is causing stress in many municipal water systems.

In his Budget Speech earlier this year, Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordhan, said that the Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant Programme was allocated R15 billion ($1 billion) over the medium-term for the construction of the bulk water and sanitation infrastructure.

That funding is used to create new water infrastructure and repair or upgrade old infrastructure. However, some municipalities do not have sufficient funds to operate and maintain that expanded infrastructure.

“All infrastructure needs to be continuously managed and maintained responsibly,” said Laubscher.

Skills Shortage

However, Laubscher believes Government is working hard to effect change in the water sector.

The National Society of Black Engineers believes that even though the growth of engineering graduates has doubled over the past ten years from approximately 21,000 to 43,000, this growth is far from adequate and is not enough to meet South Africa’s need for these skills.

This year, Government said water sector grants would be restructured to reduce duplication and the associated administrative burden.

Skills Transfer

Many experienced engineers, who have worked in the municipal environment for decades, have retired or left the sector without being given the opportunity to train and mentor the new generation of young, inexperienced municipal engineers. The result is that these young engineers are not left with the skills and knowledge to adequately operate and maintain infrastructure.

Laubscher said it would be of great benefit if a portion of the water sector grants could be set aside to train young engineers in operations and management.

Laubscher said another problem was staff retention at municipalities.

“Young engineers tend to work at a local municipality and move on to another job after gaining experience, leaving a gap that is difficult to fill. This lack of continuity then eventually trickles down to the necessity for water-shedding,” he said.

We all have a role to play

“Everyone from grassroots level all the way up to government level must manage our limited and finite water responsibly.

“This is everyone’s problem, not just one sector of society. Water shortages and water shedding will become more and more prevalent if society continues to use and waste water indiscriminately.

“But we can prevent, or at least soften the blow, if we start valuing water again and conserving it the best we can,” concluded Laubscher.