Thinking and doing beyond Day Zero

Social media attests to the rapidly escalating numbers of people in Cape Town who have become obsessed with weather reports, short-term rainfall and long-term rainfall predictions; they’re downloading every weather site in South Africa and the world, including Norway’s famous Yr – a joint service by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation. All this, in addition to the reports on TV.

Prior to Cape Town’s freshwater crisis and the countdown to Day Zero, farmers and surfers were the main weather followers, apart from some older generation folk who seem to be far more attuned to the precious resource that is water, and are accordingly far less wasteful of it.

So what is it about human nature that a water crisis like Cape Town’s only seizes the nation’s attention when the taps are about to run dry?

Paul Slovic, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, believes it has to do with people’s perceptions of risk. He is well known for his studies of perception around what he calls “hazardous activities” such as nuclear power, but he has also widely researched issues like climate change and natural disasters and how we perceive these. His aim is to better understand what drives our thought processes and how we think about or respond to risk, in order to improve decision-makers and all citizens’ risk response ahead of a crisis.

An interesting aspect of the research is that it revealed that people are more inclined to be tolerant of and therefore less proactive about the risks that nature throws at us, such as droughts, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, but less tolerant and more proactive about human-made risks, such as chemical or radiation pollution or carcinogenic foods additives.

Slovic explains that with natural disasters, a form of psychic numbing sets in, where we feel there is not much we can do. Somehow we have to un-numb ourselves, become more acutely attuned to natural disasters and what we can do to lessen or avert them.

The water crisis is a good example. Everyone is talking about Cape Town’s water crisis, and it’s all over the news, but it is not confined to Cape Town, it is a national crisis; Cape Town just happens to be the focus of attention now, and it’s getting a lot of attention because of its one of the world’s most popular cities. Come lately water champions are popping up, including members of Cape Town’s wealthiest who are attacking the city managers and provincial government for perceived mismanagement. The irony is that the majority of Cape Town’s population has been living in a water crisis for decades, with little access to it, but their voices and appeals weren’t re-tweeted.

Water scientists, water managers and farmers have been warning us about this crisis for years. They’ve been saying that with climate change, the Western part of the country, including Cape Town, will receive less rain or more erratic downpours, including unseasonal storms. But more than this they have been calling for urgent management of our catchments, rivers, wetlands, the out of control pollution in our water sources, our careless use of water and the lack of proper management of water licensing and registration for agricultural and industrial use.

The water crisis is about far, far more than when it will rain. Eight percent of South Africa’s land area provides more than 50% of our country’s fresh water. This 8% is arguably our most important natural national asset. Any impact on this 8% exponentially affects the entire country, and yet, unbelievably, in our legislation, they are not afforded much legal protection at all.

Where is the leadership here? Where is the crisis response? Where is the wake up call? We are talking about 8% of our most precious resource that is hardly protected. There is no time to lose. For every second that passes, the 8% and all of our other water production landscapes and catchments are being subjected to pollution, coal-mining, dysfunctional sewage systems, alien vegetation invasion, such as pine, eucalyptus and black wattle trees, which are consuming 3-7% of our country’s water resources.

This is not something that can be put off; this is about protecting our country’s water supply and it is the business of every South African to wake up to the national risk. What needs to be shared with every single citizen in this country is that we can all contribute to lessening our country’s water crisis as a way of life.

This requires strong, well-advised, well-motivated leadership and good governance to pursue frontline freshwater management strategies. One of these is the prevention monitoring and repairing of water supply leakages in our urban and rural areas. Leakages are caused by anything from burst or blocked pipes to taps that are left running. As a water scarce country we urgently need to bring down the 37% of water losses that occur in most South African municipalities. And it can be done.

The conservation organisation WWF-SA and the Royal Danish Embassy have partnered on several outstanding water projects across the country, with water-saving solutions for the largest national electricity production sectors to small rural communities, from the Western Cape to the far reaches of Limpopo.

In a report that WWF produced in partnership with the Danish government, titled: Innovations in the SA water sector: Danish investment into water management in South Africa (which can be downloaded at no charge
it discusses several key water-saving solutions for South Africa.

Power generation is one of them, as the report explains: Approximately 77% of South Africa’s energy needs are directly derived from coal, including 81% of our coal-fired electricity production. Conventional technology requires a lot of water and many of our coal-fired power stations are located in dry areas where water is already a scarce resource. It is expected, for example, that continuing with current conventional technology, Eskom will need approximately 3.6 million cubic metres of water per year to run a power station such as Majuba in Mpumalanga province.

Danish technology innovation company Haldor Topsoe offers an alternative solution that does not use any water. Known as the SNOX™ process, it can be retrofitted to any coal-fired power plant. The SNOX™ process can be used for any grade of coal and it produces three to four percent less greenhouse gases, plus the flue gas that comes out of the stack is well below legislated requirements. Haldor Topsoe is completely confident of the technology. It has over 20 years of operation behind it, and it is used in plants all over the world, including Denmark, Austria and Brazil.

The company started working on a study with Eskom in April 2015 to specify the savings for a power station like Majuba. How many of us have heard anything about this?

Another example in the report takes us to the rural village of Lerupurupung in Limpopo, a stone’s throw from the Botswana border, where water is supplied free of charge to approximately 5 000 people, many of whom are unemployed, some work on farms in the district and others are subsistence livestock farmers.

When there are leakages or problems with the water supply, it can take days, even weeks, to locate the problem and have it resolved. Exacerbating the problem is that community members do not always know whom to contact to report leaks and broken taps.

To demonstrate what can be done to reduce leakages and improve the management of water through accurate technological monitoring, the WWF-Danish partnership funded a pilot project in Lerupurupung, using Kamstrup water meters to monitor water use and track irregularities. Simple in their sophistication, these meters are hardy and non-mechanical. Each meter has a lifespan of 16 years and they are designed in such a way that the parts are not useful to the general public, which minimises the risk of theft. They are also easy to install.

The moment water flows out of the tap, the meter switches on and uses sound waves to measure the flow of the water. Every 16 seconds each meter sends information via a tiny, lithium battery-operated radio to a central ‘concentrator’, which has a miniature computer that can manage the information from a few thousand meters.

From the flow readings the concentrator can detect if there are leakages or if the flow is insufficient, indicating a burst or damaged pipe. In addition, if the sum of the usage does not equal the sum of the water coming out of the reservoir it indicates leakage. The concentrator has a simcard linked to the Internet, and it logs the data for each meter every 16 seconds. Every six hours it then sends the information to the hosting server, with an alert message if there is any problem, locating exactly where the problem is. An SMS or email detailing the nature and location of the problem is then immediately sent to the appropriate person in the local municipality, as well to the town engineer.

It goes without saying that these have to be skilled, driven, well-organised people leading well-managed implementation and repair teams, or any technology, no matter how innovative and appropriate, will fail.

The report offers many innovative examples that are being implemented by strong teams, and concludes that if we are to meet the enormous challenge of supplying enough water to meet our growing needs, it can no longer be ‘business as usual’; that we need to introduce new ways of ‘doing business’ with water for a low-water economy.

The business opportunities that can come from harnessing the ‘Internet of Things’ to assist us in achieving this is profound and can make all of us sustainability implementers.

Someone who fundamentally understood this back in 2011 is Wayne Duvenage, at the time the CEO of Avis Rent a Car South Africa, now the CEO of OUTA. He made the point that South Africa is a water-stressed country and to be washing thousands of their rental cars each day, he said, was literally pouring water down the drain.

He therefore introduced a recycling and water harvesting system at all their car wash depots in South Africa, starting in Cape Town. Rhodes Business School did a case study on this, which we continue to use in our teaching today to demonstrate how a committed CEO with a dedicated team can be proactive and make the necessary change. But this wasn’t just about Avis saving water. The wider motivation was to get ALL businesses to think about and implement water-saving strategies but the uptake was not good, as Slovic would have predicted.

In the case study, Duvenage makes reference to the stupidity of business leaders in not seeing the opportunity to make their businesses better and he highlights the moral imperative to do so. The key learning point from the case study though was the more that Avis embarked on the sustainability journey the more they learnt about their business in ways that they did not anticipate.

One of the expert commentators in the case study, CEO of GCX (which is all about driving innovation waves in business) Kevin James, said that making business better was not quite on the radar of CEOs at the time and that Wayne Duvenage was an authentic visionary in this regard. James has played a leading role in the growth of South Africa’s sustainability industry and enjoys a regular slot on national radio where he comments on issues relating to climate change, sustainability and current affairs. We have incredible leaders and organisations in our midst, with real solutions for our problems. So what are we all going to do? Awaken from our psychic numbing and start thinking and doing beyond Day Zero.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 390, March 2018. It is reproduced with their permission