Getting Value from Smart Water Technologies

Smart water management will meet SA's growing demands for cleaner and cheaper water.


Barcelona is a unique city, blending old monuments and cathedrals with a very modern and bustling metropolis. But it has a few things in common with South Africa’s towns and metros, notably a semi-arid climate with limited access to water. As water stresses increased, Barcelona’s authorities needed to make a plan—and they decided to use smart water technologies. The results have been incredible.

Smart tech to solve water challenges

Water providers across SA are struggling with growing demand, ageing infrastructure, and shifting weather patterns. Experts warn about water shortages as several major cities and towns have already implemented water restrictions. Meanwhile, major water infrastructure is breaking down in large metros such as Johannesburg and eThekwini, buckling under the dual strains of rapid population growth and underinvestment in maintenance.

Though the situation looks increasingly dire, water utilities have a big opportunity. Innovation in engineering and digitisation has honed a range of smart water solutions that can help improve existing water systems without massive replacements, giving sites time and space to scope their future improvements with the help of data-driven insights to improve efficiency, forecasting, and demand prediction.

“Smart water solutions have developed extraordinarily in the past twenty years,” says Chetan Mistry, Strategy and Marketing Manager at Xylem Africa. “They can deliver specific point solutions, large overhauls, or start collecting and analysing rich data for planning. One of the biggest advantages today is that you can tackle a specific problem with a smart solution, then use that investment to tackle the next problem. You can scale effort while keeping costs under control.”

Smart water technologies are fundamentally data-driven. They collect and leverage water performance data to improve results through better management and visibility. Examples include smart sensors that collect various data points, data analytics for planning and efficiency, predictive maintenance, integration of different infrastructures for improved performance, and comprehensive real-time visibility through interactive dashboards (accessible anywhere via the cloud and an internet connection).

The ROI of Smart Water

These innovations have a lot to offer, and they are cost-effective. But, like all infrastructure solutions, there are still investment concerns. What is the value, the return on investment, of a smart water solution? Utilities can jump into smart water systems only to get less return than expected. How can utilities invest in the right smart water technologies and start to get that momentum they can build on and modernise their sites?

The two crucial steps to realising healthy ROI from smart water are embracing a digital modernisation strategy and focusing on value beyond cost. Digital modernisation is neither a mere rip-and-replace strategy nor as simple as installing and linking a few sensors to software. To get good results, the vision must be more specific.

“Water sites already use technologies; they have sensors and software,” says Mistry. “Smart water systems take things to the next level because they enhance what you already have and introduce new methods and insights. This means you rely only on a technical or cost mindset. You should choose smart solutions that work for a site’s strengths and enhance the site’s requirements. Start with a plan, a vision, for the site, then look for specific opportunities to apply smart water solutions.”

For example, a site might already generate useful data, but the overall management tools are isolated. Collecting information requires considerable time before one can predict consumption levels or maintenance demands. In this case, water managers can unify water operations through cloud platform dashboards that securely consume the data, analyse results, and deliver single-truth insights to authorised personnel wherever they are—on-site, at the office, or even on the road.

Modernisation with a plan delivers results

A municipality could recoup costs by reducing non-revenue water. To do so, they can use smart flow systems to measure water allocation and consumption, identifying where there are losses. They can employ smart leak detection to pinpoint problem areas without shutting down the water pipelines for inspections.

Every site has unique needs and priorities. Smart water succeeds when there is a mindset for modernisation and a strategy to support that vision. These needn’t be massive projects—there are many low-hanging fruits that water utilities can exploit to see quick gains.

With the right planning and partners, smart water delivers great returns on investment. Barcelona reduced overall water usage by a massive 25 percent while still finding more revenue through optimisation, cost savings, and better service to customers. All of this was accomplished by adding smart technologies to the city’s sprawling (and often antiquated) water systems. Imagine what smart water solutions can do for South Africa’s struggling water infrastructure.