South Africa’s water system is in trouble. In the 2020/21 financial year alone, there were over 55,800 pipe bursts, over a third of reservoirs have supply problems, and years of underfunding of infrastructure replacement and maintenance have drastically reduced the lifespan of around a quarter of the country’s asset base.
If there’s one lesson we can take from South Africa’s electricity crisis, it’s that we can’t wait until it’s too late before we act. And yet, it nearly is too late. By 2025, South Africa is expected to experience water scarcity. By 2030, a water deficit.
With the rapid increase in urbanisation and the rising demand for our water infrastructure, we don’t have the luxury of time. There’s a sense of urgency that we must jump on now, starting with what we do have: political will and data.
The National Treasury’s Infrastructure Delivery Management System (IDMS) sets out systematic processes for delivering and maintaining infrastructure in the public sector. It’s a thorough document that outlines the government’s strategy to enhance socio-economic growth and development through improved infrastructure delivery and unity in action.
The IDMS covers everything from project ownership, accountability, and consistency to evidence-based decision-making and continuous improvement in scalability, capacity, and capability. It sets a solid foundation for planning and budget alignment, identification and prioritisation of infrastructure projects, and improved risk management.
It’s a massive part of the solution – and it’s already in place.
It’s true that we can’t manage what we don’t know, but we can start with what we do know.
Municipalities rely heavily on citizens to report water leaks, burst pipes, and supply or pressure issues. There are numerous channels to do this, including call centres, SMS, Twitter, or emailing the ward councillor.
However, this data is siloed and unstructured. Some of it is inaccurate and unreliable, making it difficult for officials to know which issues to prioritise or the impact that repairing (or indeed, not repairing) a fault will have on specific communities or institutions.
Imagine if officials had a real-time overview of every leak in the city? If they knew how much water they’re losing, and how many users are affected. They’d be able to quickly deploy their teams to the areas that need help the most. And by combining this with South Africa’s well-documented climate and rainfall data, we could start building a digital representation of our water assets to identify patterns, hot spots, and opportunities for proactive maintenance. After all, assets are cheaper to maintain than they are to repair, and they’re cheaper to repair than they are to replace.
The technology exists – officials can start installing sensors each time they repair or maintain infrastructure to start collecting critical information about the country’s water catchment, storage, and distribution network.
The groundwork described above paves the way for the ultimate prize: creating a digital twin of all assets, including water, energy, and transport infrastructure.
We need an accurate, real-time overview of South Africa’s infrastructure – a single view of the truth that will help city officials make informed decisions. This is possible with “digital twin” technology.
A digital twin is a virtual representation of physical assets, like buildings or water pipes. By sharing data between the virtual and physical environments, municipalities, city officials, and planners can make the most of our infrastructure, and future-proof it to extend its lifespan.
With an accurate and detailed overview of our infrastructure, reflecting the state of each pipe, valve, and pump, maintenance teams can work together rather than in siloes. For example, when the Maintenance Leak Repair Unit, the Asset Management Planning Unit, the Implementation of New Projects Unit, and the Financial Budgeting Unit use the same data, they can set collective targets and control points.
Once this is done, we’d be able to set up automated prioritisation. With information at their fingertips, city officials can make informed decisions backed by artificial intelligence and predictive analytics. They’d also remove the risk of human error while existing issues would be fixed faster.
Decision-makers would be able to see, in advance, when specific parts of the infrastructure will need maintenance. This sort of preventative maintenance would help officials to solve issues before they arise or become apparent to citizens and industry.
A digital replica would also create an immutable overview of all work done on our infrastructure, when, and by whom. The significance of this is huge – it would give those in charge access to all the information they need to make fact-based decisions. It would also help to build institutional memory and promote trust and transparency.
The work involved in building a digital twin would also create jobs – not just for computer programmers and data analysts but also for “blue-collar workers”. We need people to install IoT sensors and devices. We need people to scan and capture data and analyse the information transmitted by those devices to be able to make decisions about how the asset should be used and maintained.
While Johannesburg has a way to go before it has a fully-fledged digital twin, once we’ve mapped out our water, transport, energy, and building infrastructure, a virtual replica of the city will be within reach.
This would enable the public and private sectors to work together with citizens to use the data pulsing through the city – from water pipes, traffic lights, roads, businesses, parks, and buildings – to make life in Joburg more sustainable, efficient, and liveable for everyone.
If we use the urgency that exists now to get our water infrastructure represented digitally and connected to digital automation and decision-making tools, we won’t just save the city from a devastating crisis – we’ll be laying the foundations to set up a truly world-class digital African city.
By Dominic Collett, Urban Development Engineer & Smart City Specialist at Royal HaskoningDHV.