Managing South Africa’s water for a better tomorrow

Renowned water expert sheds light on the many opportunities associated with sustainable solutions.  

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Mario Carelse
Business Improvement & Innovation, City of Cape Town Water and Sanitation Directorate

In 2015, after two years of good rains, the Western Cape entered a period of severe drought. For the City of Cape Town, this was the start of a multi-year water crisis, the likes of which we hadn’t experienced in over a hundred years and which had serious adverse effects on the city and its inhabitants. The infamous term “Day Zero” emerged and was coined as the drought progressed to the point at which it was projected that Cape Town’s municipal water supply would need to be shut off and the city’s pipes would run dry. South Africans use an average of 235 l of water per person per day, 36 % more than the global average of 173 l per day, but during the Cape Town water crisis, residents were told to consume no more than 50 l of water per household

Cape Town was a mere 90 days away from running out of water, but the catastrophe was averted thanks to the introduction of innovative pressure reduction methodologies, sustained reduction in water use and effective public communication and awareness programmes. Climate change is creating major challenges for water management across the country and Cape Town has not been spared at all. The same goes for the growth of informal settlements, load shedding in the electrical system and inadequate risk systems for mitigating environmental pollution. 

The Cape Town water crisis showed that residents/citizens definitely can’t afford “to fall asleep at the wheel” when it comes to water scarcity. I’m passionate about, and committed to, ISO standards and that’s the reason why I’ve made it my mission to completely embed them into South Africa’s water policy and other future-related ambitions, which we’ll similarly achieve through consistency in our practices. Standards are an integral tool in our journey towards achieving sustainable water management. 

A culture of quality 

When it comes to ensuring quality and excellence, ISO standards assist greatly in setting the benchmarks which are vital to prevent water mismanagement. The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) has rigorously adopted the following ISO standards, and this aids in addressing key challenges faced across the sphere of water governance in Cape Town: 

  • When facing a crisis, whether it be extreme weather, electricity blackouts or an event like the COVID-19 pandemic, you have to keep going. To provide vital water and sanitation services to people, and avoid a Day Zero scenario, you need to ensure business continuity. That can only be achieved through the implementation of strong, resilient systems which mean you are able carry on despite the disruption. ISO 22301 is an invaluable standard for adapting and averting these operational risks. This continuity is also really important if we are to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 
  • It may appear to be an odd standard for water governance, but ISO 22000 on food safety management is also a key tool for us. That’s because we deem water to be food. As a consumable product, water should be subject to the same strict controls as is the case with food production, so that consumers can be reassured that the water they receive is of the highest quality. This year, after almost five years of hard work, South Africa will for the first time have two water treatment plants ISO 22000-certified.  
  • Load shedding of electricity is a real challenge for us in terms of infrastructure maintenance and management, but to address this, we are rolling out ISO 50001 which is the energy management standard. We are engaged in various supporting projects that will ensure water management in the Western Cape is aligned to this standard. This enables us to ensure that we are sustainably delivering freshwater to everyone linked to our water supply network. 

Many years ago, I was on my own campaigning for the adoption of ISO standards. Today, as a team, we are collectively seeing the value of implementing these standards, how it is helping us to create a framework and a culture of quality that trickles down through all levels: all project managers, suppliers and partners across the Cape Town water supply chain are now ISO-compliant or -certified.  

There is still a lot of work to be done. My aspiration is to ensure that this new culture of excellence can be replicated in other areas of water governance – in local and national government, for example. I am confident that a Metro like Cape Town and a South Africa based on this model will be ready for any challenge. 

Utilities and policymakers intertwined 

Water governance is just one part of a broader effort towards sustainability. My work in Cape Town aligns with South Africa’s environmental goals and legislation as well as national efforts towards the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. The National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) is clear about the need for “cooperative environmental governance”. By making the Cape Town water supply chain ISO-compliant along its entire length, we are actively responding to environmental requirements and objectives at the country level. 

ISO standards allow us to fulfil our role in that wider governance mechanism and they are increasingly being adopted in policy, by-laws and regulations across South Africa. They are also having a huge impact on South Africa’s legislative landscape across environmental policy, governance and health and safety. 

Jumping barriers 

Our work in Cape Town (and beyond) isn’t over yet though. Climate models predict that multi-year droughts in South Africa could be up to a hundred times more likely by the end of the 21st century, if we don’t take the required precautionary action. Without standards, we risk process failure and systems collapse. The need for standards to control water use, make it more efficient and conserve water reserves for the future has never been more vital for South Africa. 

I hope my work can inspire other municipalities in South Africa to follow the example we set in Cape Town, but there will be challenges on the road ahead. We need to create a strong and cohesive system founded on enabling standards so that the burden of championing better water management doesn’t fall on a single person or organization. In addition thereto, we need to be clear about the return on investment that operating with ISO standards can generate, but not only in financial terms. We can help other municipalities catch up to Cape Town, not just so they can save money, but for the welfare and future of all the citizens of our beautiful country. 

I’m consistently inspired by the people and the environment, because those are the things I’m trying to help and protect. This isn’t easy work and it doesn’t always go quickly or smoothly, but it’s crucial for our future. “Quality is doing it right when no one is watching.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do for years and what I will continue to do for my kids, their kids, the future of South Africa and the whole planet. 


About Mario Carelse

Mario Carelse is Head of Business Improvement & Innovation with the City of Cape Town’s Water and Sanitation Directorate. A certified lead auditor, he is responsible for raising the provincial capital’s water resilience profile through adaptive strategies based on standards. Mario spent ten years as senior auditor for the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) and has over 20 years’ experience in management systems standards.

Alcanzar el cero neto en las emisiones de carbono no es solo una urgencia ambiental; también presenta oportunidades significativas para organizaciones de todos los tamaños.

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