Why technology is the solution to fixing South Africa’s (clean) water problem

If water is a basic human right enshrined in the South African Constitution, why does a significant portion of the country still struggle to achieve access?

At the recent CLES Colloquium event held on 20 August, Mezzanine’s CEO Jacques de Vos joined a panel of technologists, academics and policy research professionals to discuss The Potential of Technology and Innovation Towards Realising the South African Constitutional Water Right.

A key theme that emerged was the democratisation of data. Whether from a legislative, technical or equality perspective, each speaker explored the tremendous potential of data and technology to enable this basic right to all South Africans.

Enabling reliable access to local and municipal service delivery is at the heart of our Smart Asset Management Solution (SAMS). This solution is a digital asset register which has reduced inefficiencies, cut costs and improved delivery of basic municipal services, such as water, sanitation and refuse management.

Much of this progress has been achieved by digitising and connecting resources and assets together. From digitising pump station readouts at the source to making use of smart metering and remote sensors at water reservoirs, these innovations have come together to make up the key component of SAMS’ impact (which also goes for our entire technology suite), and that is data.

As technologists, the real value we provide is to focus the attention of public stakeholders on the data that is collected and managed on these systems. This is essential for informed decision making to take place, as well as ensuring accountability for those decisions.

As we’ve observed across countless projects across the African continent, aggregating data (as well as providing the underlying infrastructure to interpret and transform it into actionable knowledge) is the key to ensuring that this happens.

However, much of the progress we make is ultimately dependent on the bonds between the different tiers of the public sector, namely local, municipal and national. Technology may be the enabler, but it requires motivated and well-resourced stakeholders to embrace their mandate fully.

It also draws a spotlight on the function of a water authority. Ideally, their purpose is to provide clean, drinkable water to all of its local constituents. However, far too many water authorities in South Africa are beset by defunct or antiquated infrastructures and a lack of engineering expertise at a personnel level. Above all, there are few, if any, effective measurement practices to prevent contamination from industrial activity or unforeseen weather changes brought about by climate change.

Once again, the current state of play underscores the importance of democratising data access and literacy at every level of service delivery. If local water authorities are empowered by digital assets to monitor and continuously improve their practices, the impact is felt both upstream (by municipal and national public stakeholders) and downstream (by citizens who are able to enjoy unfettered access to the water to which they are entitled).

Needless to say, it is not possible to make sound governance and management decisions without a quality monitoring programme. Data is at the core of good measurement practices for any and all service delivery infrastructure.

Here are our six takeaways from the virtual event, which underpin everything we do at Mezzanine:

  • Democratise data (make accessible to all authorised stakeholders)
  • Last-mile visibility enables accountability
  • Provide cross visibility, accountability and traceability
  • Bridging the gap between what transpires at the last mile and stakeholders responsible for delivering services
  • Sustainability - revenue generation to invest in better infrastructure
  • We are all stakeholders, let’s connect the dots