" if you've known each other forever and a day."

Eike Riediger works as a wastewater process controller at the Oldenburgisch-Ostfriesischer Wasserverband (OOWV). As part of the partnership with the South African metropolitan municipality of Buffalo City (BCMM), he visited the East Bank wastewater treatment plant at the end of 2023 as part of a delegation and reports on his experiences.

The team at the Mdantsane wastewater treatment plant | Photo: OOWV

The German experts - a delegation from the Oldenburg-Ostfriesischer Wasserverbund (OOWV) and the Wupperverband - visited the BCMM plants for just under a week. After a joint tour of the East Bank wastewater treatment plant, which is the pilot plant of the wastewater working group, the working groups split up. The wastewater working group mainly stayed at the plant, while the drinking water working group visited the Bridle Drift dam and the water treatment plant.

Mr Riediger, why are you involved in the utility partnership and how do you personally benefit from it?

Eike Riediger: Personally, I got along very well with the South African colleagues who visited us last summer. In general, I find it exciting to exchange and share expertise internationally, also because I am curious about what wastewater treatment plants are like in other countries and how wastewater treatment works there.

What did you do in South Africa?

Eike Riediger: I travelled along to accompany our South African colleagues in their work at the wastewater treatment plant, to get to know their daily routines and to better understand their work processes. Just like the colleagues who completed the training with us in July.

The plants we visited were built in the 1960s and in some cases have not been modernised much, which is why the wastewater treatment plants are not at the same technical level as in Germany. But you could see the will of the partners to upgrade the technology. It was very interesting to see how they are realising this with the resources they have available. One of the plants we visited was extremely modern, which I would not have expected.

A second plant that we visited was unfortunately heavily affected by vandalism. The South African colleagues had already told me about the problem of vandalism when we first got in touch. But actually seeing the extent of vandalism really opened my eyes to how good we have it here in Germany.

Are there many similarities in the cooperation and operation of the wastewater treatment plants there and in Germany? Where do you see interfaces?

Eike Riediger: There are actually hardly any differences in wastewater treatment, every plant works in the same way in terms of the basic principle. The only difference between the plants is the state of the art.

What do these differences look like in concrete terms?

Eike Riediger: What we have automated, for example, is still a lot of manual work over there. Among other things: We have so-called screens, which are responsible for removing the coarse solids from the wastewater. They are the first cleaning stage of a wastewater treatment plant. The bars are arranged parallel to each other and stand vertically in the water. A comb automatically passes through them and the debris is then transported away via a scraper plate. In South Africa, the screens are still cleaned by hand using rakes.

Wage levels are not that high in South Africa. Perhaps it is a good thing if the process is more labour-intensive, or does this have technical implications?

Eike Riediger: It's definitely not good for your health to be so close to it. Furthermore, we have a lot of digitalised value recording: the running times of moving machine parts, power consumption, etc. At East Bank, everything is still recorded by hand. Having this digitalised would make work easier and would free up two or three workers to carry out other work on the system

What have you planned for the future of the partnership? What are the next steps?

Eike Riediger: As far as I know, we would like to expand these on-the-job training sessions and make them a permanent part of our partnership. To this end, we are now planning a visit by our South African colleagues to Germany. This time different colleagues to those who took part last summer will be attending the training. We have also agreed to jointly develop 12 further training modules for wastwater treatment plant operators over the next few years, which will not only deepen understanding of the process but also troubleshooting.  

As far as I know, South Africa is also in the process of freeing up funds to modernise plants. The focus here is on implementing an wastewater logbook for the East Bank wastewater treatment plant.

What are your wishes for the future? Where would you like to be in two years' time as part of the partnership?

Eike Riediger: At the moment, the training of employees in South Africa is only organised through the teaching of basic theoretical knowledge. I would like it to be organised more like in Germany: a 3-year apprenticeship with electrical knowledge, technical knowledge, i.e. metalworking, welding, pipework service, etc. and also laboratory experience. That you are taught a broad spectrum of specialised knowledge and are then also able to operate the systems properly without external workers, without an external laboratory, at a level of technology that ensures that the water can be cleaned thoroughly.

How did you feel when you arrived in South Africa?

Eike Riediger: It was very, very welcoming and after a few days it was as if we had known each other for years and a day. It was easy to talk both professionally and privately. It quickly became a pleasant, friendly atmosphere. That made my journey a lot easier and motivates me to continue to get involved.

Thank you very much for this interview!

An interview by Burkhard Vielhaber

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