The most basic relationship between citizens and the state is through the use of public services and utilities. When infrastructure fails, the consequences can be dire. With sanitation infrastructure decay in South Africa in mind, what solutions emerge to overcome key infrastructure management challenges?

WHY IS INFRASTRUCTURE SO IMPORTANT?


In any country the most basic relationship between citizens and the state is through the use of public services and utilities. These include public roads, schools and clinics, or receiving water, sanitation or electricity services.

Beyond the above fundamental points, infrastructure is critical for sustainable development and human security on three different levels:

Infrastructure serves to protect and enhance the health and safety of users.

Infrastructure engenders social mobility and access to economic opportunities

Infrastructure acts as a catalyst for generating economic growth and jobs

All economic activity as well as sustainable growth, relies fundamentally on well-managed and maintained infrastructure systems. As such, it is a long-term investment deserving of protection and care, both by the state and the people who use it. When infrastructure is left to fail, the consequences can be dire. The current example of sanitation infrastructure in South Africa serves as case in point.

WHEN INFRASTRUCTURE TURNS TO CARRION


South Africa’s municipalities are increasingly drowning in their own human waste and the consequences are very real for people on the ground.

According to the South African Institution of Civil Engineering’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the status of sanitation infrastructure in South Africa is in crisis. This is, amongst other variables, due to long periods of neglect in areas of maintenance, refurbishment and upgrading of collection and treatment infrastructure.

“An increasing number of sewer failures are occurring within municipalities, which cause blockages in pipelines, overloading of manholes, flooding of community areas and leading to degradation of neighbouring services.”

In 2017, for example, Pietermaritzburg's Infrastructure Business Unit reported that the municipality’s water and sanitation infrastructure was crumbling. In July that year, the unit recorded a total of 146 burst pipes in 31 days, leading to an estimated total of 1825 bursts projected for the remainder of the year. According to the unit’s acting general manager, Brenden Sivparsad, the number of burst pipes had skyrocketed over the years, jumping from 608 in the 2006/07 to 2 138 in 2016/17. The number of mainline blockages had, moreover, increased from 1 647 in 2007/08 to 3 839 in 2016/17.

“Failure to renew sanitation infrastructure”, according to Sivparsad, “will result in continuous sewer blockages, which lead to raw sewage spilling into storm water drains and rivers resulting in high E.coli levels in our rivers.”

The above consequences of infrastructure failure have been felt more recently by the more than 1 million residents of the economically depressed Vaal River district as 150 million litres of raw sewage from the Emfuleni Municipality’s ailing wastewater works continues to spill into the Vaal river via its Rietspruit tributary every day. With an E.coli count of up to 241,000 per 100 ml the area’s core agricultural and tourism industries face imminent ruin. The situation has become so problematic that the government has called in engineers from the armed forces to help deal with the water crisis.

While the Vaal District faces a myriad of intersecting challenges, such as unemployment, non-payment of utilities, fiscal constraints and aging infrastructure, some general challenges remain ever present that are prevalent across South African municipal infrastructure management environment:

Insufficient technical capacity to manage, operate and maintain existing facilities and to plan for new facilities

Poor enforcement of policies (e.g. industrial effluent bylaws) and poor governance

Lack of capacity to manage, corruption

Inadequate sustainable financial models

- Vandalism, theft and illegal connections

In the face of crisis, where can real progress be made?

DATA-DRIVEN INFRASTRUCTURE MANAGEMENT CAN ADD VALUE


As noted by the authors of the SAICA Report Card, “even the strongest institutions, staffed by the brightest professionals, cannot succeed without good information”.

A central component in overcoming major challenges in sustainable infrastructure management in South Africa is instilling a data-driven culture across the entire infrastructure management landscape. From project management to infrastructure condition monitoring, the consistent collection, centralisation and interrogation of data allows for evidence-based, accountable decision- making, which, moreover, can enforce a sense of civic responsibility and awareness about infrastructure.

Digital tools such as the IMQS Water and Sewer Infrastructure Modules as well as Project Control System and Maintenance Management Module offer municipal engineers the ability to understand what infrastructure they have, where their assets are located and how their use will determine their lifecycle. By constructing a systems view of the asset landscape, it becomes easier to determine when and how assets are used and in turn degrade. Prediction becomes a more scientific process, leading to better planning, decision-making and proactive intervention.

The digitalisation of infrastructure management can overcome key challenges in decision-making by allowing for better planning of capital and operational expenditure across the entire lifecycle asset management process. By enabling proactive and effective maintenance interventions, municipalities and governments can rest assured that their capital investment in new infrastructure projects will not be wasted in the long run.