Q: How has COVID-19 highlighted water, sanitation and health as a priority in Africa?
A: Most healthcare-associated infections are preventable through good hand hygiene. This is even more true in light of COVID-19. Previously there was no major consequence associated with not washing hands. Now, however, it is seen as the first effort in combating the spread of the pandemic. Without piped water, remote communities are already constrained by only having some two to five litres a day for cooking, drinking and washing. Even this amount is commonly shared across four to five people. An individual requires an average 3.78 litres per day for handwashing alone, so we cannot expect disadvantaged communities to safeguard themselves adequately.
Q: COVID-19 also increased the water needs of hospitals. What are the challenges?
A: Medical personnel in most developing countries do not have reliable and accessible safe water, compromised further by under-resourced and overrun healthcare facilities. This is exacerbated by the unprecedented global healthcare crisis, more so because many such facilities had not been able to undertake maintenance, in some cases for more than two decades. Water storage, therefore, had not been a priority. However, without storage of reliable and accessible safe water, vulnerable patients are dangerously susceptible to additional infections spread by contaminated drinking water, unsterilised instruments and limited handwashing facilities.
Q: Why is water storage even more important during the pandemic in remote communities?
A: More than 3 million South Africans do not have access to water, and often any actual water source is too far from the communities most affected. The need, therefore, for storage facilities between a source and the local communities is paramount during a pandemic, especially when the first line of defence is handwashing. If the source is too far, handwashing will not be as frequent as is needed.
Bear in mind that, according to Stats SA’s most recent General Household survey, an estimated 44.9% of households had access to piped water in their dwellings as of 2019. Water-storage tanks can significantly improve the quality of life for those who have to travel distances to neighbours’ taps or face the threatening conditions of river access and quality.
Q: How do you determine tank size?
A: South Africans consume some 237 litres per person per day, well above the global average of 173 litres per day – and that was before COVID. If we err on the side of caution, presuming water is limited to what can be carried – say 10 litres – a 5 000 litre tank will provide enough water for just 500 people per day. However, there are two other important factors to consider.
Firstly, any 10 litres collected will be shared with an entire household and, secondly, once the water tank is emptied it requires refilling, which may not happen for days. Should a 5 000 litre tank be refilled daily, it can only cater for the consumption needs of 21 people per day anyway. In contrast, a 2 million litre tank can provide enough water for 8 400 people per day. Ultimately a community’s needs define the tank size required.
Q: How should SA plan for the long term?
A: Solutions that don’t meet the demands of communities result in disgruntled people. What motivates for a long-term solution is a crisis event, such as COVID-19, or protest action over chronic water shortages. There needs to be more intense, longer-term planning to implement solutions that provide everyone with their constitutional right to access to water. Where no water infrastructure exists, water tanks can meet consumption demand and thereby avoid unnecessary agitation.
We have a rapidly growing and urbanising population, changing lifestyles, economic growth and climate change, all of which affect water requirements. We cannot be reactive nor wait for such issues to affect access to water. When wells run dry, there is a scurry to find temporary solutions, which is far too late, especially given that water is currently severely under-priced and cost recovery is not being achieved, so there is no major monetary cost associated with water wastage.
By 2030, SA’s water demand is expected to reach 17.7 billion m3, of which households will account for 34%. Current supply amounts to just 15 billion m3, and it is severely constrained by low rainfall, limited underground aquifers and reliance on significant water transfers from neighbouring countries.
Q: What are the new technologies in the water-storage environment?
A: Most of the world has moved away from concrete reservoirs to steel reservoirs, which have a 50-year lifespan and are constructed at a fraction of the cost. Also, steel tanks can be fitted with more than one water tap, meaning that social-distancing regulations can be adhered to. New technologies introduced also monitor water-storage levels, usage and quality. Also relatively new to the market are solar-powered water filtration and desalination techniques, which are rapidly advancing how we store water in tanks.