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Finding ways to do it better

By Martin Czernowalow

South Africa needs to find ways to better conserve water, as well as other sources inside and outside its borders, says principal hydrologist and partner at SRK Consulting Peter Shepherd.

At our current growth rate, South Africa is going to run out of water — in other words, our demand will outstrip our national supply. “In Gauteng, this has already happened, which is why we import water from Lesotho. We, therefore, face the twofold challenge of firstly using water more efficiently so we can conserve what little we have, and secondly finding other sources within or outside of our borders,” Shepherd explains.

Shepherd says one of South Africa’s most immediate challenges is that the country has some aging infrastructure that needs to be replaced, especially insofar as sewage and reticulation is concerned.

“The money and effort we spend on this infrastructure is to prevent wastage of our precious resource. Sectors such as farming, industry and mining also need to continue striving towards minimising any spillage and decant into our water resources; progress on this front will help ensure sustainable supplies of clean water for downstream users.”

In the longer term, Shepherd points out, the country will need to make more extensive use of its groundwater, but this requires closer monitoring and control of how much we use and for what purposes.

“We continually need to strive to a southern African response to regional water needs — in other words, sharing water between those southern African countries that have water to spare and those that don’t have enough. This could conceivably be achieved along the lines of how we pool our electricity resources,” he says.

“Along our coasts we already have some towns desalinating seawater — the technology is there to generate usable water quality, although the high cost of doing this is still an issue.”

Shepherd has been involved in the field of hydrology for more than two decades, and his specialisation falls into the areas of storm rainfall estimation, flood lines, dam hydrology, mine water management, river hydrology, maximising development in respect of potential flooding, water supply, strategic water assessments, and flood management.

Best place to be

Shepherd studied at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Pietermaritzburg, and graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Science degree in geography and hydrology. He then went on to complete his Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in hydrology the following year.  

“After spending a year overseas, I joined SRK Consulting, realising that South Africa was the place to be. Being a water-scarce country, constantly plagued by floods and droughts, where else would a hydrologist want to work? South Africa has been a great place to develop as a professional in the water field and the future in water management has many opportunities for young enthusiastic people,” he notes.

Shepherd says he started his career in the development of stormwater management plans in various municipalities in the greater Johannesburg area, and used this knowledge to work increasingly in water management in the mining and industrial sectors.

“The 1990s saw a turning point in the management of water in these sectors, so it was an exciting time to be involved in the development of innovative water management measures. The highlight of my career was being appointed a partner at SRK Consulting in the mid-2000s, and being able to guide our team of water scientists and engineers in this exciting field.”

In regard to current projects he is involved in, Shepherd explains that mining and industry are currently concentrating on minimising the use of potable water, as well as identifying ways to reduce seepage — and potential pollution — from their operations. “So our main projects are focused on the development of plans and strategies to reuse as much water as possible. They also focus on identifying ways that polluted water can be captured before it is contaminated,” he says.

Turning to his passion for sustainable water resource protection, Shepherd points out that South Africa is a semi-arid country, yet we continue to use water quite wastefully and often seem unaware of the fact that we are not using our water efficiently. This, he believes, is a result of our water being too easily available and relatively cheap.

Great skills base

“To protect our scarce supplies of water and to work towards a more sustainable approach, we all need to change our attitudes towards water and continuously strive towards developing ways to better conserve it. We have a great skills base in the South African water sector and really must put these skills to full use in finding more efficient solutions,” he says.

“I believe that South Africa has some of the best legislation governing the management of water, but it is difficult to implement some of it practically.”

Shepherd believes that where we could be doing more, for instance, is in the implementation of user-based water management forums. This is where stakeholders within a catchment area — who may include industries, municipalities, communities and government departments — co-ordinate their efforts for better and cost-effective results.

A good example of positive outcomes from a water forum, he says, is the development of the eMalahleni Water Treatment Works in the Mpumalanga province. This facility treats water from various mines in the area for the betterment of the catchment. South Africa also needs to implement plans to distribute water better, he adds.

In terms of where South Africa is falling short in addressing the challenges related to its current water crisis, Shepherd says he needs to emphasise the question of collaboration, as mentioned before.

“This is a vital element of water management where we could be doing more. By pooling financial resources within a catchment area, a number of stakeholders could actually save money by, for example, jointly developing treatment facilities that serve everyone,” he says.

“We should also remember that not all applications need water of a potable standard. By working together in water forums, different players can ensure the water quality they need — usually at a lower cost than setting up their own facilities. Also, by getting experts working together in these forums, many good ideas are generated that can add value to our water management practice.”

While these are some of the opportunities that exist for businesses to take advantage of, Shepherd points out that for individual households there is growing pressure to limit water consumption through rising water tariffs and even fines.

“The main opportunities for households to conserve water is through cutting the amount of water used on their gardens, as this is generally the lion’s share of a domestic water bill. Water-wise garden redesigns are, therefore, becoming popular, including more indigenous and hardier plants that are less thirsty,” he says.

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