A new approach to water access

A new approach to water access

After decades of apartheid South Africa is dealing with many social and environmental problems. The plumbing industry is keen to do its share.

South Africa is the fourth largest country in Africa, with a surface area of more than a million square kilometres and an estimated population of 48 million.

The country is water stressed and drought prone, and remains among the top 30 driest countries in the world, with an annual average rainfall below 500mm. It gets most of its water as surface water, and the rest is groundwater and reuse of return flows.

Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Lindiwe Hendricks says the demand for water in South Africa has been increasing.

“With greater requirements in agriculture and industry, and more people being given access to water, we expect the demand to continue growing.”

From the year 2000, when South Africa’s annual water requirement was about 12,900 million cubic metres, projections of water consumption patterns led the country to expect a demand of 14,200 to 16,800 million cubic metres by the year 2025.

The plumbing industry is seen as crucial to South Africa, given the increased focus on saving water. The Institute of Plumbing launched a plumber registration program this year, to make sure the wet services industry gets skilled professionals.

However, publishing editor of Plumbing Africa magazine Rory Macnamara says politics has had a negative effect on standards and skills.

“Since democratization of South Africa, the politicians made the mistake the rest of Africa keeps on making, that is, everything must become black. Affirmative action became the order of the day and simply created an exodus of professional and trade skills.

“The industry has committed itself to the transformation process, but the starting point is training.

“Because of the poor education given to the black population under the previous government, these folk simply could not step into the training arena and become plumbers and technicians. The learning gap and basic language problem just did not enable this.”

The Government did revamp an existing trades training program, but Macnamara says it still needs time to develop. It has not received wide support in the industry because the high level of theory resulted in new plumbers being seen as having insufficient practical experience. There is also a complicated rebate system for taking on learners.

However, the South African Institute of Plumbing has a “vital initiative”, with sponsorship from the German Technical Co-operation that will review and develop plumbing qualifications.

“This is a good sign, in that they will look to consolidate the different plumbing courses into one and have a process whereby all plumbers are taught the same and receive the same qualification,” Macnamara says.

South Africa is an urbanizing nation. Almost 60% of the population (28 million people) live in more than 3,000 urban communities, including shanty towns (also known as informal settlements). The scattered and rapid growth of shanty towns is a big challenge in providing adequate water services and infrastructure.

The nine largest cities have a combined population of 16 million, and cover only 2% of the country’s surface area. Almost 75% of rural communities depend entirely on groundwater, even though this represents only 9% of available resources. Nine million people still lack access to water, 64% of them living in rural settlements. Sixteen million have no basic sanitation facilities.

South Africa is struggling to transform itself from a country of political and racial oppression to a democratic nation with equal rights for all. The unequal water access of the past under apartheid is being tackled with the 1998 National Water Act, which governs the access and licensing of water.

The Water Act protects aquatic ecosystems, which means that no water use is licensed without considering the possible environmental effects.

The Government has initiated a free basic water program to ensure access to effective water supply and sanitation services, as well as access to health facilities and services. This program aims to provide poor households with 6,000L of free water each month. In reality it is a slow process, and some local authorities are making better progress than others.

Barbara Schreiner is deputy director-general, rules and regulations, at the Department of Water Affairs. She says the Water Act is founded on three pillars – efficiency, equity and sustainability.

However, there is low community awareness of water conservation issues. Schreiner says studies by the department and other water management institutions confirm worrying trends of inefficiency, wastage and losses.

More than 50% of the country’s water resources are over allocated, with less water available for new water users. Up to 60% of water in the domestic sector is lost, inefficiently used and wasted. And more than 50% of water in the country’s dams does not reach the root zone of plants in the irrigation sector.

“If South Africa is to sustainably and continuously strive to meet and better the national goals of 6% socio-economic growth and development, we need to change the way we manage and use our water resources to ensure that we produce more crops per drop in agriculture and industries,” Schreiner says.

South Africa is developing specific national water conservation and water demand management regulations that will focus on preventing waste, losses and inefficiency in the entire water supply distribution chain.

“Significant amounts of water are lost through poor-quality plumbing fittings, which result in continued burst and background losses that run for years undetected.”

This means the country needs trained plumbers and plumbing engineers.

“It is paramount that designers or engineers focus on water supply systems that are simple to use and easy to retrofit, to enable quick resolution of blockages and leaks in households and related fittings.

“Regulations will address in detail the need for appropriate, quality plumbing fittings. The lack of such has been a main cause of water losses and wastage in many households.”

Interestingly, an annual water audit will be enshrined in regulation for those who use more than 350kL a year.

The building industry is booming in South Africa, which in turn is helping the plumbing industry.

Arthur Boynton-Lee is a non-executive director of the DAWN Group, the country’s largest wholesaler of local and international branded hardware, sanitaryware, plumbing, kitchen and engineering products.

“Following a period of relative depression after 1989, with only a small hiccup in 1996, the building industry has experienced a boom for the past three or four years,” he says.

“This has been stimulated by the lowest mortgage interest rates in more than 20 years. Also, the market is rapidly growing as the benefits of wealth redistribution emerge as a consequence of black empowerment policies and affirmative action.

“In addition, government-assisted development of low-cost housing has stimulated the industry. The Government’s recent budget includes substantial infrastructure investment, and the 2010 World Soccer Cup requires a lot of investment.”

South Africa uses British Standards, inherited from the county’s years of colonial influence, as well as European Standards.

“We therefore cater for a wide variety of water pressure conditions, dimensional Standards and performance requirements,” Boynton-Lee says.

“Our Standards have been developed to satisfy harsh African conditions, taking into account our historic development, skills and skills availability – for example, torque strength of a screw-down tap spindle, and de-zincification-resistant brass in all brass components exposed to our corrosive water.”

Standards have been established by negotiation between municipal water engineers, the Department of Water Affairs, merchants, local manufacturing industries and the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). The primary enforcers of Standards are the municipal water engineers for all urban water reticulation installations and products.

Ken Patrick, marketing consultant for local manufacturer Marley Pipe Systems and chairman of the polymer hot and cold technology group that represents most of the composite/plastic pipe suppliers, says the industry is dissatisfied with the Standards and specifications.

“This relates not only to the understanding of the topics and the subsequent writing of specifications but also the updating of such specifications and the enforcement of them.

“In a perfect world the specification writers would have all the answers then write or adopt a specification and we would all comply.

“In South Africa life is a little more complicated. It is easy to complain when the rules of the game have not been properly understood, efficiently written or effectively enforced, but it is up to the players – in this case the market – to take the lead and assist where possible.”

Mr Patrick sees the solution in industry operators taking responsibility beyond their own commercial gain and contributing to a greater understanding of the issues at stake for the benefit of everyone.

“We appoint official bodies such as SABS or JASWIC (Joint Acceptance Scheme for Water Installation Components) to assist in the control of important issues, then leave them powerless to do what we want. We all need to get involved and treat it like a partnership.”

Boynton-Lee says the South African plumbing industry differs from the practice in Europe, where plumbing contractors of any size tend to carry stock and have showrooms displaying the range of products they install.

“They mainly buy from wholesalers, who buy from manufacturers.”

The South African plumbing community, including manufacturers, seldom have showrooms and rely on merchant outlets to provide product exposure.

“The bulk of the local manufacturers promote their products by having them specified, particularly in medium and larger projects, and take responsibility for product and brand advertising. Most reputable local manufacturers back the performance of their products in the field and support this with ongoing installer training on the operation of their products and the installation.”

Patrick says building inspectors and product approval education are big issues in South Africa. There are not enough building inspectors, and those that are around are poorly rewarded officially. And without them the Standards and specifications are pointless.

Fraud is another concern, Patrick says. Plumbers, contractors and developers are selling non-approved products, and that means someone somewhere is getting less than they paid for.

“Without solutions to both these issues, South Africa could quickly become a dumping ground for the cheapest, shoddiest products from around the globe. By the time we feel the consequences, our local manufacturing capability – as well as distributors of quality imported products – could well have collapsed.”

The country has teething troubles in switching to a democratic system, and this affects its water infrastructure, Standards and training.

“South Africa as a democracy is in its infancy – this must always be remembered,” Macnamara says.

“But the industry is taking responsibility for its own future. The Government has shown its willingness to be part of these initiatives. The future is good. We just need to get through this trough and keep in the right direction.”

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