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LGSETA and VUT driven collaboration to address water and wastewater management in the local government sector in South Africa

By Ochieng Aoyi

The current water problem in South Africa requires collaborative efforts from different sectors including local governments, industries, individuals and academic institutions.

In light of this, the Local Government Sector Education & Training Authority (LGSETA) and the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) formed a partnership in 2014 by signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for two years. More recently the Chief Executive Officer of the LGSETA, Ms Gugu Dlamini, and the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the VUT, Prof Irene Moutlana, agreed to renew the MOU upon the successful completion of the projects under the first MOU.

The aim of the partnership is to address the problems of skills development and water management by the local government sector in South Africa. At the VUT, water management projects are coordinated by the Centre for Renewable Energy and Water (CREW). The director of the CREW is Prof Ochieng Aoyi who is also head of the Department of Chemical Engineering. It is important to note that CREW, which is currently playing a pivotal role in the implementation of the water management projects in Gauteng, North West, Free State and Mpumalanga was created in 2013, thanks to the support by the WRC.

The CREW has adopted a three-tier strategy interspersed with knowledge dissemination conferences as a model to run its projects. The first tier involves fundamental research majorly supported by the WRC. The second one is applied and community outreach approach sponsored by the LGSETA and the focus is on the local government and skill development. The third tier focuses on industrial projects supported by Chemical Industries SETA, Talbot & Talbot and Eskom. Of great interest to the stakeholders and the target group is that conferences are organised regularly to disseminate the information from the projects and to compare notes with the international community of experts. In each of the tiers, there is a cohort of students given specific training to work in the target sector. To the best of our knowledge, CREW is the only research centre in South Africa that uses kind model in this region.

The LGSETA and the Water Research Commission (WRC) of South Africa sponsored projects, coordinated by CREW, which involve the participation of the University of the Witwatersrand, University of Johannesburg and Tshwane University of Technology.

The LGSETA sponsored projects were initiated through an international round table discussion held at the Emperors Palace Convention Centre, Johannesburg, on the 25th February 2015. The summit served as the official launch of an initiative to respond to the national water problem. The unique feature of this initiative is that it provides an engagement platform for academic institutions, industry, non-governmental organisations, national water management organs and municipalities.

Through this engagement, a consolidated multi-sectorial and collaborative approach is adopted to seek sustainable solutions to water and wastewater management problems in the local government sector. The research collaboration projects cut across the spectrum of fundamental and applied research, both at lab and plant scales as well as outreach activities. The philosophy behind this approach is that the projects are conceptualised around existing community problems. More importantly, the stakeholders participate in identifying priority issues.

The unique aspect of this approach is that after a given set of activities, results are disseminated at a conference where national and international experts are invited to share their experiences. It is for this reason that the VUT and the LGSETA jointly organised a round table discussion (RTD) at the Emperors Palace Convention Centre on the 25th February 2015, which was attended by about 100 delegates including water management experts from India, Kenya and Namibia. Also attending the conference were national delegates from several government bodies including the Water Research Commission (WRC), Rand Water, Department of Water and Sanitation, the Water Institute of Southern Africa, Municipalities and various universities in South Africa.

The RTD identified key priority issues as non-revenue water, water treatment and re-use, the water-energy-food nexus, municipal wastewater management (practice and policies) and skills development. It was acknowledged that there are many problems concerning water management but some are consequences of the primary ones, which were looked at from different perspectives.

National and global perspectives: The RTD was opened by the Vice-Chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology, Professor Irene Moutlana, who gave a succinct global perspective of the VUT-LGSETA partnership and defined our role, as South Africans, in global efforts to address the problem of water provision to all. She explained the concept of optimal and fair utilization of critical resources like water and that the underpinning notion of water are stated or unstated power relations or space. If these power relations are not checked, they culminate in what the world is experiencing in terms of imbalances, turbulences, inequalities and highly volatile and conflict situations. This brings to the fore the issue of distributive justice; who gets what, when and why?

The local government's perspective: The role of the LGSETA was eloquently explained by the then Administrator of the LGSETA, Mr Ngaba Nqandela. He explained that SETAs are supposed to become for their sectors, thought leaders and they are supposed to be repertoires of knowledge, information and wisdom on skills matters for their sectors. He reported that according to the 2011 census, 73.4% of households in South Africa had access to pipe water in a dwelling or yard, which was a significant improvement to what was in 2001 (i.e 61.3%). This is an improvement of 12% or 24 million people in 10 years; something that some people may want to celebrate.

The Executive Mayor of Ekurhuleni, Cnll Mondi Gungumbele, observed: "This partnership that has been struck by the VUT and the LGSETA is a very important step as we seek an academic and scientific answer to the challenges we face around the issue, of wastewater in South Africa". Further, the CEO of the Water Research Commission, Mr D Naidoo, emphasised the importance of deriving the benefit of the interrelation between water and energy.

Finally, the consensus was that the primary problems lie with resource management and technical skills required. This shows a strong link between skills development and service delivery. Also, it was observed that in regions like the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, there are strong university-municipality partnerships involving University of Cape Town and University of KwaZulu-Natal, respectively. Such partnerships need to be replicated in Gauteng, Free State and North West provinces. It is for this reason that the WRC and LGSETA have strategically sponsored a number of projects, run by universities in Gauteng, focusing on wastewater management in these regions.

After the round table summit in February, work was done in the field by the VUT team and thereafter a conference was organised at the Emerald Resort and Casino in Vanderbijlpark, South Africa, between 21st and 22nd May 2015. The theme of this conference was "Building collaboration in Water and Renewable Energy Research and Innovation: The Trilogy (Past, Present, and Status-quo)".

The conference was more focused on technical issues and was attended by researchers from many African counties and Canada. It was impressive to see that a large proportion of the papers addressed African problems. This was a departure from the traditional approach to research where many researchers in Africa would try to solve problems that had little relevance to the African circumstances. From the presentations, it became apparent that to address the water-energy problem, scientists have, in the recent years, adopted strategies that are aimed at developing technologies for creating more with less.

At the centre of this strategy is the use of low-cost materials, solar energy and technologies based on region or site specific conditions. The key strategy is to initiate research collaborations in which experts from different fields work together on projects that address water-energy-food nexus within the context of African problems and resources. It was observed that Africa has large fresh water bodies including lakes and rivers that frequently cause disastrous floods. Rivers with large volumes of water are inevitably potential sources of hydroenergy. Further, for countries in the tropical regions, additional advantages include abundant solar irradiation and warm climate that is conducive for producing renewable energy from wastewater.

At the end of the presentations, there was a discussion session to map out the way forward. In the discussion, problem areas were identified as: working in silos, using irrelevant data, lack of research collaboration among African countries and little appreciation by Africans of what is African. In light of this, it was agreed that as way forward it is prudent to apply cutting edge technologies to address the most pertinent community problems and hence improve the quality of life in Africa. Nobody will do it for us. African must create and drive their own research agenda, and to achieve this, the following recommendations were made: We must collectively exploit the competitive advantage that mother Africa presents to us, create synergies that exist at the interfaces of the different disciples and engage in research that adds value to life as we conserve the environment for our grandchildren. Subsequent work was done with a more crystallised focus.

Problems and proposed interventions: Again, after the conclusion of the projects, an information dissemination conference was held this year (2016) from 7 to 8 April at the VUT Southern Gauteng Science Park and Technology. This conference largely focused on the management of municipal water treatment facilities, and for this reason many municipal water management staff were invited. The main objective of the conference was knowledge dissemination and process re-evaluation with a focus on the local government sector. This was to consolidate ideas from similar initiatives aimed at collectively addressing the challenges in the sector. The main problems experienced by different local government engineers and technicians were highlighted as:

* Lack of futuristic approach to water management as well as inability to spend allocated funds; * Lack of skills and competencies in science, engineering and technology (SET); * Wrong priorities, especially concerning maintenance and capital investment; * Lack of information on the location of some water distribution lines; and * Emerging contaminants and pollution loads into water treatment plants.

Recommendations were given as:

* Transition to a green economy is the way towards a sustainable future. * Implementation of techniques that integrate conventional and emerging techniques for water/wastewater treatment. * Desalination should be given more attention to reduce the cost and make it feasible. * Studies aimed at addressing the skills gaps in the local government sector should be prioritised. * Coordination of research initiatives to optimise resources utilisation and avoid duplication.

The next phase of the research will be guided with the preceding recommendation. In addition, CREW is organising another conference towards the end of the year. The aim of the conference is to get buy-in from the stakeholders, receive their perspectives and benchmark these against those of its international delegates. It is important to emphasise that some the proposed interventions are meant to provide long-term solutions. For example, desalination and treatment of recovery of clean water from acid mine drainage require elementary scientific knowledge. However the success of the required technologies lies in the science and economics of the process. Details of the findings are in the reports submitted to the project sponsors.