First published in Engineering News on 19 August 2020. 

Smart Network Technologies in Water

By: Dr Andries Nel, Head of Water at SEM Solutions

Let’s be smart about water

According to the draft National Water Security Framework[1], South Africa is considered water insecure. This can be attributed to the low historical investment into water infrastructure development and insufficient maintenance on the existing water infrastructure network, amongst others.

As a result, South Africa is experiencing deteriorating water quality and has water inequality issues when it comes to access to potable water. This is present across different geographic regions.

These issues are worsened by the recurrent droughts experienced in low-rainfall regions such as the Karoo[2]. Another main factor contributing towards water insecurity is leakages in the existing water network. World Bank data indicates that 25-35% of water is lost due to insufficient filtration and leakages worldwide, which impacts on water availability and the global economy[3].

Although South Africa has a world-renowned water policy and legislation, implementation of these has been the main deterrent in increasing water security. As such, South Africa must look for solutions that will aid in this endeavour, to the benefit of the economy and its people.

A smart water network is a technology driven solution that will contribute towards increased water security. Smart water networks are capable of improving and detecting problems within the water network, monitoring water use and leakages and providing improved data on treatment processes[4].

Smart water networks are defined as the integration of smart technologies into the water distribution network infrastructure. This enables technology to provide improved monitoring, control and forecasting capabilities of existing water networks. Big data can also be utilised as part of the network to improve the frequency and quantity of informational responses received from the system. Thereby providing efficiency and optimisation enhancements.

South Africa is already experiencing increased adoption of smart network technologies in the commercial building sector. Considering the improved leak detection and monitoring capabilities, commercial customers are more inclined to provide the higher capital cost required for an improved utility management system in the long term. This is evident in sectors such as retail and offices where sub-metering and billing of tenants are involved.

Commercial entities, real estate investment trust companies and developers who are dedicated to sustainability and digitalisation already use these technologies. The Hotel Verde building in Cape Town and Department of Environmental affairs building in Pretoria, are prime Green star 6-star building examples, where smart metering was incorporated as part of the building management. Various hospital, hotel and leisure groups also use smart water networks on a large scale to provide a holistic utility management strategy for their assets.

Nevertheless, there are specific challenges in South Africa when setting up smart water networks. In commercial buildings the primary challenges have been the additional capital cost required to implement these systems and the education and training required to successfully operate and maintain them. Since South Africa has several remote locations with low internet connectivity, these costs vary depending on the complexity and range of the selected water network.

However, regardless of the challenges, smart water network technologies have many benefits and the feasibility should be considered on a project basis for each network. Improved leak detection, identification and reparation can be achieved, benefitting not only the service provider but also the end user. Smart water networks can improve billing accuracy, fault detection and pressure fluctuations in the system due to improved data and demand profile generation.

Another benefit is that smart water networks are scalable. Incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT), the network size can vary with almost infinite connections, as long as connectivity is maintained. Therefore, bespoke smart water networks can be created from a residential level to commercial, metro and then cross-country networks. Considering order of magnitude effects, smart water networks have proven to provide the best results if implemented on large scale water networks[5].

With water supply on the agenda of most countries in the world, there has never been a better time to be smart about water, especially in a water scarce country like South Africa.


About the author:

As a leading mechanical engineer and engineering manager, Dr. Andries Nel heads up the water division at SEM Solutions, a company specialising in sustainably engineered energy and water solutions for the commercial- and industrial building sectors. His core focus is the design and delivery of turnkey water solutions.


[1] DWA (DEPARTMENT OF WATER AFFAIRS, SOUTH AFRICA) (2013) National Water Resource Strategy, June 2013, Second Edition. Department of Water Affairs, Pretoria. Accessed 20 July 2020.

[2] Le Maitrea, D., Colvina, C. and Maherry, A (2009). Water resources in the Klein Karoo: the challenge of sustainable development in a water-scarce area. South African Journal of Science 105, January/February 2009. Accessed 20 July 2020.

[3] Zarza, L.F. (2019). Smart Water Technology, the future is here. Smart Water Magazine. January. Accessed 20 July 2020.

[4] Zarza, L.F. (2019). Smart Water Technology, the future is here. Smart Water Magazine. January. Accessed 20 July 2020.

[5] Di Nardo, A. et al. (2015a). New perspectives for smart water network monitoring, partitioning and protection with innovative on-line measuring sensors. IAHR World Congress. Viewed 20 July 2020,

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