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Digitalisation can quench Africa’s thirst for potable water supplies

By , Chief Executive Officer, Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa.
27 Jul 2023
By Sabine Dall'Omo, Chief Executive Officer at Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa.
By Sabine Dall'Omo, Chief Executive Officer at Siemens Sub-Saharan Africa.

The sobering reality that countless African communities still lack access to safe water is not a cause for despair but a call to action. It's an opportunity to re-evaluate the region’s water infrastructure and take steps towards achieving Africa’s Vision for 2025, which aims to unleash the full potential of the region’s water resources to stimulate and sustain economic and social growth.

After all, water is a finite resource. It needs to be protected from source to consumption because it is also a catalyst for economic growth and the most valuable resource for survival.

Innovative technology to overcome this hurdle exists and can radically transform how water utilities operate. Bringing this expertise to the table can bring Africa closer to achieving sustainable water resources that provide quality potable water for communities throughout the continent.

Navigating Africa’s water landscape

Recent findings from South Africa’s 2023 Blue Drop Watch Report on the country’s water infrastructure reveal a struggle to manage the country’s water and sanitation systems, evident in the decline in drinking water quality, with 15% of all water systems in poor and critical condition.

Adding to this wastewater treatment challenge are Africa’s fast-growing cities, driven by the region’s rapid population growth and urbanisation. These factors place further strain on the continent’s water resources.

Though challenging, there is potential for progress to resolve this crisis through innovation and implementing more efficient, tech-driven systems. For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) play a significant role in protecting valuable water systems from pollution, as demonstrated by an AI and IoT clean waterway project led by Siemens, Yorkshire Water, and the University of Sheffield in the UK.

The project addressed combined sewage systems (CSS) in Yorkshire Water’s waterways overflowing untreated water during heavy rainfall. The team developed a system that uses AI and IoT to predict and prevent these overflows by locating blockages in the piping network.

Traditionally, experts at Yorkshire Water relied on statistical methods and data from around 2 000 sensors on the combined sewer outlets to predict potential blockages. However, these methods often resulted in false alarms and late detections.

Using data from sensors, real-time rainfall information and a cloud-based data analytics technology that predicts possible outcomes, the team can now identify anomalies in sewer system behaviour. The technology learns the unique behaviour pattern of each sewer outlet in response to rainfall. It then alerts a response team when an issue is detected to attend to and remove the blockage, preventing any potential spills.

This novel approach has shown immense success in a trial involving 70 sites across the region, providing up to two weeks advance notice of blockages and reducing the false alarm rate to just 3%. Siemens and Yorkshire Water plan to extend coverage to the rest of Yorkshire Water’s combined sewer outlets. The success of this solution demonstrates the considerable impact of combining innovative technology like AI and IoT to preserve natural water bodies.

Digitalisation is the water industry’s lifeline

Water is becoming an increasingly important economic factor. That’s why digitalisation is a game-changer, enabling water utilities to become more efficient and effective by offering remote monitoring, early fault detection, and instantaneous notifications about burst pipes or leaking pumps. When integrated with existing infrastructure, tailored digital solutions, like electrification and automation can improve wastewater treatment to manage water networks effectively and conserve one of our most precious resources.

For example, Botswana, like many African countries, has battled water shortage issues due to climate change and a growing population for decades. Together with its ecosystem partner Moreflow, Siemens addressed this challenge by introducing a Totally Integrated Automation portfolio to provide access to safe and clean drinking water to the residents of the rural Bobirwa district.

The partnership supplied the automation and electrical equipment and services. The scope of supply included the medium- and low-voltage electrical system and drive components and process instrumentation.

The company also designed and implemented a comprehensive plant automation and monitoring package. One unique aspect of this project was introducing a system that could monitor and control large-scale water infrastructure in the village over long distances, which offers a cost-effective and low-maintenance connection even in very remote locations.

As a result, the Thune dam and treatment plant provides access to clean tap water in many parts of the district and contributes to improving water security in the area The scheme will supply 11 million litres of treated water daily to approximately 40 000 people until 2035. The plant also provides tanks for bulk storage of the treated water before transferring it via pipelines to the distributed storage tanks in the surrounding villages.

This demonstrates how the solution to Africa’s water crisis lies at the intersection of private innovation and public utility. Private sector companies with advanced technological solutions can equip water utilities with tools to manage demanding water supply and sanitation.

Tapping into the power of public-private partnerships

Private sector solutions are only half of the equation. There is a pressing need for African utilities to embrace these innovations. Thankfully, opportunities for these partnerships are materialising through initiatives like the South African Department of Water and Sanitation’s proposed Water Partnership Office. The office aims to rejuvenate the water industry through private sector investment – emulating the electricity procurement agency that attracted billions for renewable energy projects.

These developments create a real opportunity for public sector utilities and government to engage the private sector, its skills, and technology to improve the quality of the region's drinking water and facilitate efficient and effective wastewater treatment. Tapping into the power of these partnerships can turn the tide on the region's water challenges and make the dream of Africa's Water Vision 2025, a future with safe, sustainable water resources that are not a luxury, a reality for all Africans.

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