Umgeni Water – Rising Water

Umgeni Water is keeping the KwaZulu-Natal province supplied with water even in the face of growing challenges.

Umgeni Water, the government-owned entity within South Africa, is the second biggest water utility in Africa, primarily supplying the economic zone of the province of KwaZulu-Natal. In that area, Umgeni Water supplies approximately 7 million people with potable water as well as providing water to the industries of the region. Since it was formed in 1974 Umgeni Water has complied with all the regulations as outlined from the best practice national legislation in South Africa, as well as requirements in terms of infrastructure and maintenance to ensure a supply of water of the right standard for residents and industry.

Umgeni WaterWe pride ourselves in terms of our strategy and the implementation of that strategic direction which make us the institution we are,” says Thami Hlongwa, Umgeni Water’s CEO. “You can see this in the offering we give our clients and the reliability of the products we produce. The strategy we have in place makes us able to provide potable water at any point in time as required by our communities and consumers. In a nutshell, we are an entity that invests in our people and skills to ensure our employees are dedicated and loyal to the cause. We use innovation and technology, investing in new ways of doing things, particularly concerning climate change and the topography of the areas we supply. We also invest a lot in our relationships and partnerships with our customers and our suppliers.”

Umgeni Water has positioned itself through an aggressive, agile and innovative strategy. The company impresses upon all of its staff the importance of innovation, inspiring growth, so that Umgeni Water’s customers, stakeholders and communities benefit from its strategy.

Water for City and Country

Supplying such a large, not to mention diverse, region with water brings its own challenges, as Hlongwa points out, “The biggest challenge is the fact that as an entity producing 1300 million litres a day of water, we need enough capacity to sustain growing urbanisation. We already have more than 60% of the population in cities. There is growing demand there.”

Paradoxically, however, the other big challenge Umgeni Water faces is ensuring that there is sufficient infrastructure and maintenance in place to serve the less populated areas of the region.

“We need to make sure the areas people are migrating from are also well equipped in terms of development. We need to make sure economic development is maintained,” Hlongwa says. “We need to grow and enhance economic development as much as possible in the right areas. The challenge is how do you ensure you invest in the development in those areas with less population than the urban areas and serve the population?”

The manner in which the communities are arranged can often lead to more infrastructure requirements for areas containing very few households.

“How do we invest if there might be a limited return on investment?” Hlongwa points out. “We’re searching for more immediate earnings to ensure the future of these areas is properly sustained.”

It’s a challenge that can only be overcome with extensive long term planning, and this is why Umgeni Water prides itself on running a 30 cycle of production planning, trying to predict as much as possible what the year will look like from a demand perspective ahead of time.

“We plan for tomorrow but also for future augmentation or future infrastructure and demand,” Hlongwa explains. “It means at any point in time we have a blueprint anyone can take a leaf from in terms of how we prioritise infrastructure improvement and maintenance. It also assists in the operational requirements including the skills requirement, the effort in supply, even the quality and quantity of water itself because we face climate change phenomenon. It allows us to make sure the supply chain is maintained. We’re looking at desalineation, underground water, surface water and cloud seeding, in order to understand the different water sources. This allows us to have enough time to look at all the options before implementing a project.”

Keeping the Water Flowing

Planning couldn’t have been more essential than it is right now, with people facing a crisis on a literally global scale in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. While many industries are shutting down, obviously even during a pandemic people are going to need water, and Umgeni Water is more important than ever.

Umgeni Water“We cannot afford to have supply of water disturbed. So how do we make sure that COVD-19 doesn’t compromise our ability to supply water?” Hlongwa asks. “We are working using a three-team rotation. If any member of a team gets infected, we can use another team to continue with production. We have divided our production team to three teams, to make sure we have enough contingency to keep delivering even if anyone of us is infected. We are limiting the number of people coming into the office and treatment works. I’m working from home, my office staff is working from head office, we don’t have all people in one place.”

Indeed, pandemic aside, Umgeni’s plans see the company growing and increasing its capabilities.

“We are going from strength to strength in terms of infrastructure. We are currently generating net profits of 1,4 Billion rand while ensuring we have enough capacity for future requirements,” Hlongwa says. “We have a lot of future plans to meet infrastructure requirements. We’re also focusing on building a pipeline of future leaders with capacity among young professionals so we have people we can take lead the organisation in the future.”

However, Hlongwa also wants people to realise just how essential water and water infrastructure are, especially during times of crisis, when so often the focus can be on other infrastructure that nonetheless still relies on a consistent water supply.

“Let me just say I think a critical aspect, from a community perspective, is the manner in which we downplay the importance of water services,” Hlongwa says. “One will find there’s a lot of attention on energy, on other related services, transportation, mining, but there’s little attention to what we need to fuel all those requirements. Water is needed to fuel energy, transportation, and development. Water needs to be at the centre of the developmental agenda at all times.”

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