By Fiona Wakelin
Umgeni Water (UW), a State-Owned Entity (SOE), is one of Africa’s most successful organisations involved in water management and is the largest supplier of bulk potable water in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The organisation was established in 1974, to provide water services – water supply and sanitation services – water services authorities (WSAs) within our area of operation in its service area.
Please outline your role and responsibilities as Laboratory Manager at Umgeni Water
My roles include ensuring smooth running of the Laboratory Services Department which comprises four modern ISO/IEC 17025 accredited laboratories (Chemistry, Soil Chemistry, Microbiology and Hydrobiology), with a long established reputation of meeting international standards.
This involves leading a multidisciplinary, highly-skilled and dedicated team of Scientists, Technicians and laboratory support staff who utilise modern analytical techniques that enable the facility to provide a world-class service 365 days a year, to satisfy internal and external customer expectations.
What services does the laboratory offer? Do you test for Covid-19 in water samples?
The laboratory provides a world-class analytical and technical service 365 days a year, in support of the primary business – which is rigorously testing water quality to fulfil Umgeni Water’s legislative and internal obligations in respect of water quality management. The analyses/tests encompass a wide range of parameters or tests from various water sample matrices including potable water, freshwater and wastewater. These parameters are analysed to ensure continuous provision of bulk water that meets the statutory South African National Standards, SANS-241, thus ensuring public health protection from water-borne diseases and water-related health impacts. In addition, analyses/tests are undertaken on effluent and soil samples to ensure wastewater compliance in line with General Authorization and effluent discharge limits, and compliance with sludge classification for sludge disposal legislated requirements, respectively.
The laboratory is also significantly involved in the following:
- Undertaking catchment and river health monitoring to assess the status of water resources and quality of raw water supply.
- Undertaking research and development and generation of scientific data for new infrastructure developments.
- Immediate provision of early warnings and alerts to stakeholders when a breach of quality standards is detected and ensuring that the incident-management protocol is followed to contain and remedy the breach.
In addition to assuring the quality of bulk water produced by Umgeni Water, the laboratory provides water testing and sampling services to municipalities and various private sector clients. This valuable service supports and assists municipalities to improve their IRIS Blue and Green Drop compliance.
As an ISO/IEC 17025-accredited laboratory, Umgeni Water laboratory has to constantly keep up with the requirements of the standard, in order to maintain its accreditation status. Also, as the SANS-241 requirements keep changing, the laboratory has to keep abreast of the latest developments, and ensure that analytical methods for newly added parameters/determinants are developed and validated, towards accreditation thereof, thus ensuring the integrity and credibility of the results produced from these methods.
In terms of testing for COVID in wastewater – not yet, the laboratory is in the process of renovating the biology laboratories which will see the introduction of a fully-fledged virology laboratory. In preparation for this, some of the analytical equipment is already in the procurement process. When COVID struck, realising that Umgeni Water did not have adequate resources, we leveraged the existence of strategic academic collaboration partners and immediately partnered with two of the academic institutions and provided funding for the epidemiology studies in wastewater at key Umgeni Water operational areas. This also translated into an opportunity for skills transfer from the academic institutions to our laboratories.
Climate change has a huge impact on water supply – both flood and drought as we are seeing currently in South Africa. What mitigation and adaptation policies does Umgeni Water practise in this regard?
Umgeni Water has a climate change response policy and an implementation plan that considers both mitigation and adaptation.
The policy recognises that Umgeni Water processes and activities contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and hence has a policy statement on mitigation (reducing the organisation’s greenhouse gas emissions which states that:
“In its engagement with the water value chain, Umgeni Water together with its partners and collaborators will steer towards a lower carbon development path and in so doing contribute to reducing greenhouse emissions, resulting in limiting dangerous levels of global average temperature warming in accordance with the Paris Agreement”.
For adaptation, the policy also recognises that Umgeni Water’s business i.e. water supply is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and has an adaptation strategy for reducing Umgeni Water’s vulnerability and enhancing climate resilience which states:
“Umgeni Water will ensure that its processes and decisions reduce vulnerability and build resilience and adaptive capacity to the impacts of climate change for the organisation, its infrastructure, its customers and communities”.
In addition to above policy statements, there are also policy statements that complement these which include:
- Water resource protection and climate resilient ecological infrastructure investment
- Influencing behavioural change for enhanced climate response
- Climate change response financing
The Umgeni Water climate change policy is being implemented through an implementation plan that is integrated to the sustainability implementation plan.
For climate change mitigation, the plan has the following initiatives that are currently being implemented at Umgeni Water:
- Greenhouse gas emissions reduction – carbon emissions mapping, development and implementation of carbon emissions reduction plan
- Increase energy mix – renewable energy sources- solar power installation at Umgeni Water site offices (planning phase)
- Hydropower installation at Mpofana and Mkhomazi (business case approved)
- Recycling waste to energy – Darvill Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW) co-generation (feasibility phase)
- Adopt green building design for planned offices/projects
- Greening on existing buildings i.e. reduction in energy and water usage
- Circular economy (concept paper)
- Development and implementation of catchment management and ecological infrastructure management plans for carbon offsets i.e. wetland restoration for climate regulation ecosystem services
For adaptation, the plan has the following initiatives that are being implemented:
- Studies to assess the impacts of climate change on water resources – recommendations from this study are integrated into planning and design of water infrastructure.
- Develop and implement flood early warning systems – this includes flood monitoring and early warning systems based on SAWS weather forecast and dam parameters i.e. dam levels, rainfall, discharge, antecedent precipitation index (soil moisture) etc. In addition to this, operational sites have flood emergency response plans. Warnings are communicated to operational staff, municipal disaster management and communities downstream of dam infrastructure. Umgeni Water also supports municipalities with expertise for developing specific flood forecasting and early warning systems based on hydrological modelling i.e. UMDM flood forecasting and early warning system (currently being tested). The UMDM system includes a flood response plan and from lessons learnt from the recent KZN floods, Umgeni Water in collaboration with municipalities provide support to communities with flood disaster mitigation plans.
- Develop and implement drought management plans for all systems – this includes drought parameter monitoring and preparing of water resource status report on a quarterly basis. This information is shared with authorities and customers. In addition to this, Umgeni Water chairs the Joint Drought Operating Committee (JOC) which has representatives from DWS, DARD, municipalities, farmers, etc. The JOC institutes water restrictions where required and also ensures the implementation of water demand management measures during drought.
- Diversified sources of supply – desalinations initiatives (North Coast and South Coast)
- Water quality management – water quality monitoring and implementation of catchment specific management plans.
- Implementation of catchment management and ecological infrastructure for water resource protection and sustainable water supply i.e. integrated aquatic weeds management; wetland assessment and restoration for improved raw water quality and quantity; Upper Mkhomazi soil erosion project; terrestrial alien invasive plant management.
Do you conduct training and information workshops? Please give examples.
Most of the laboratory staff, particularly laboratory technicians, start as in-service trainees or graduate trainees. It is through years of training in Umgeni Water laboratory that they become competent in the analytical methods that are used in the laboratory. Also, as an accredited laboratory, there has to be continuous training for continuous competence in the work and activities performed.
Every new method or analytical equipment that gets introduced in the laboratory requires that training be conducted for staff, with an ultimate declaration of competency in that particular method or instrument, as part of Technical Aspects of Competency accreditation requirements, and such declaration of competency has to be provided to SANAS during assessments or as and when requested.
The laboratory also conducts training for other municipalities and water boards in various areas of laboratory testing, method development and validation as well as compliance data uploading on IRIS.
In addition, the laboratory hosts Science forums on a quarterly basis as part of information sharing with staff to provide an update on any research and accreditation developments that are constantly introduced.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Seeing the team excel in what they do and tapping deeper into and unleashing their own potential. There is nothing that excites me more than the team members further developing themselves to be better individuals at what they currently do, and even tapping into new avenues.
Have you had an AHA moment as Laboratory Manager for Umgeni Water?
My AHA moments were in 2018:
- When two of our Laboratory Technicians, who had never been in any of the external presentation stages before, other than for school presentations towards their academic qualifications, presented their work at the National Laboratory Association (NLA) Conference, for a new analytical method that they had developed and validated towards SANAS accreditation (the work that is usually done by the Scientists), won an award for the “Best Presentation”. It was such a thrilling moment for the department and it set a precedent for other laboratory technicians that with determination and hard work they can achieve these accolades and receive the recognition they deserve.
- It so happened that in that same year, I received an award for the Best Divisional Manager, which I did not see coming, and I honestly do not know what I had done to receive such an honour.
What are Umgeni’s CSI programmes?
Umgeni Water’s CSI programme is governed by the Corporate Social Investment Policy that provides a framework for investments in projects aimed at creating sustainable communities, whilst taking into account the strategic purpose of the organisation.
The programme provides for 5 overarching categories of initiatives:
Programme Related CSI Initiatives: submitted by the various divisions as a way of the entity taking total responsibility towards the business environment in which it operates and living its values.
Strategic/Discretionary CSI Initiatives: implemented at the discretion of the CE and the Chairperson of the Board to address a strategic issue.
Targeted CSI Initiatives: submitted in response to the call for CSI proposals, from different targeted areas within Umgeni Water’s area of operations.
Legacy Projects: live a physical and visual memento, for the communities to remember Umgeni Water, for years to come. An example of a legacy project that is underway is the construction of toilets in four schools and Traditional Administrative Court within Nungwane footprint.
These are further divided into the following 5 focus categories, with examples of those initiatives that are underway in the current financial year:
Education, Training and Skills Development: build skills and awareness in water and related services.
- Education support for an orphaned learner who was adopted by Umgeni Water.
- Education support for an orphan whose family drowned in Mvutshane Dam.
Job Creation: Programmes: improve the livelihoods in the communities within which Umgeni Water operates, and are in support of the entity’s mandate and strategy.
Public Health and Community Support: programmes supported to counter the impact of the company’s business activities.
- Construction of toilets and drilling of boreholes for drinking water in 1 Primary School and 2 Secondary schools.
- Construction of toilets and water supply for Mandosi Combined School
- Financial support for a township based (Phantane) athletics club
- Construction of a house for the Ncalane Family who lost 10 family members in a drowning incident
- Two Water Tankers for Wards 6 & 7
- Provision of Dewatering System for Sikhululiwe Secondary School
- Assistance with Water Tankers during Durban Heights water crisis
Environmental Conservation: contribute to the protection of the environment and the conservation of natural resources.
- Rehabilitation of 7.3 km of riparian zone along the Darvill loop
Staff Volunteerism and Support: Projects initiated by staff members by donating time, food, clothing, toys, books, etc. particularly during the Mandela Month activations and December period, in support of those who cannot afford.
April KZN flood incident CSI Support:
Umgeni Water has established a 3-year partnership programme with the community of KwaNgcolosi to be implemented to rebuild their lives. This will encompass, amongst other initiatives, job creation for long-term sustainability of the community).
As a short-term intervention, water tankers, blankets, food and counselling for the impacted families and community have been provided.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I do not see myself as having or using one leadership style; I have a blend of these styles that vary depending on the situation or circumstances. I can switch between and use a combination of Visionary, Servant, Autocratic, Democratic or participative and Transformational leadership styles.
What exciting plans do you have for the coming year?
There is a new version of the SANS-241 standard, which will see the introduction of extra analytical parameters. I cannot wait to get Umgeni Water laboratory ready for most and all of these, as others are already being developed and implemented, which will give the laboratory that competitive advantage and edge.
Do you have a message for our readership?
The recent floods have enhanced my appreciation of water scarcity and availability. Certain areas, including mine, did not always have access to water. I got to realise that indeed every drop counts, we need to use water sparingly. I get really frustrated when I see a leaking tap, and I do not hesitate to close it tightly/properly.