Understanding the background better

Impressions from the Drinking Water Working Group's visit to our partner Buffalo City Metropolitan Municipality (BCMM) in East London from 27 November to 1 December. This visit once again showed how important personal dialogue between experts can be and what partnership work means.

The Umzoniyana waterworks | 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 for the project work, the working groups split up. The wastewater working group stayed mainly at the plant, while the drinking water working group visited the Bridle Drift dam and the water treatment plant.

Together with BCMM, the aim of the working group is to secure the drinking water supply for the city of East London for the future.

At the beginning of the visit, it was important to familiarise ourselves with the conditions in South Africa and the catchment area. Studies and experience have shown that South Africa goes through a period of drought every seven years. The last very severe drought in 2018 made it clear that not only Cape Town but also East London was very close to a day zero (interruption of the municipal water supply due to dwindling water reserves).

Citizens and industries are currently considering how they can use rainwater harvesting and alternative water resources to protect themselves from being left without water during the next dry spell - if they can afford it.

And this is precisely one of the major challenges facing South Africa's drinking water supply.

"The general condition of the waterworks was surprising for me; unlike in Germany, the water treatment does not take place entirely in one building, but the first treatment stages are outside. However, the longer we were there, the better we were able to understand the background to why it looks like this." Ingo Schuster described his first impressions.

In South Africa, the human right to drinking water has a slightly different meaning than the one we know in Germany. Here, vulnerable households are entitled to six cubic metres of water per month free of charge. The flow rate of these water connections is often not measured, meaning that the amount utilised is much higher. As a result, a large proportion of the water produced is not paid for and it is almost impossible to finance maintenance.

The Umzoniyana waterworks not only supplies the city of East London with water, but also the second largest township in South Africa, Mdanzane. BCMM therefore has hardly any income for maintenance work or investments.

In addition to the consequences of the climate crisis, underfunded maintenance work and the discharge of untreated wastewater from various industrial plants that flow into the Buffalo River are the main reasons for the major challenges in the treatment of raw water from the Buffalo River into drinking water.

These circumstances have prompted the car manufacturer Mercedes Benz, which has had a production plant in East London since 1958 and is one of the largest local employers, to establish a self-sufficient water supply through recycling, its own wells and rainwater utilisation. The colleagues from Mercedes Benz reported on their future strategies and OOWV also had the opportunity to present its projects in industrial water reuse. This was received with great interest by the Mercedes employees.

With all this background, the task now is to gather experience and learn from and with each other in order to be able to operate a suitable water supply in the future.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these challenges, the partnership is developing very well. Colleagues who come into contact with the partnership for the first time are quickly welcomed and enjoy being part of the working groups, and for those who have been involved for longer, Olaf Sonnenschein summarised the partnership work very nicely: "Colleagues and partners become friends".

Meike Lenzen, OOWV, in cooperation with Burkhard Vielhaber

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