On the South African Government website, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) summarises its objectives in just five words – ensuring some, for all, forever.

This simple but evocative phrase is a stark recognition of the massive challenge the country faces in distributing its scarce water resources fairly to all its people in a sustainable and cost-effective manner.

In most cases this vision is very far from being realised – hardly surprisingly for a country that has only recently emerged from the restrictions of apartheid – and the means by which the 1997 Water Services Act can best be put into practice is currently one of the hottest topics in South African politics.

Conscious of the many demands on its severely limited resources and the failure of some early and over-ambitious schemes, the Government has determined that privatisation is the only realistic way forward. It has already taken the first steps in that direction by loosening its control over some of the biggest water utilities – Ungeni Water in Kwazulu-Natal, Rand Water in Witwatersrand and Cape Metro.

As the custodian of the country’s supply, DWAF is not only faced with the difficult practical task of bringing water to very diverse areas, from urban townships peopled by millions to remote and sparsely populated countryside. In line with policy, it must also implement its programme in a manner that assists institutional and social development and teaches local people desperately needed practical skills.

New pipes

This was the complex scenario that Biwater Industries faced when it began to sell ductile iron pipe actively in South Africa in 1997.

DI pipe had never been produced in the country and, although it was imported for a brief period in the 1980s, local manufacturers of steel pipe persuaded the Government to impose import duties on the dubious grounds of protecting South African industry from unfair competition.

In effect, this restriction amounted to a subsidy for home-produced rival materials, giving steel pipe a dominant position in the market for many years, and the long-delayed arrival of ductile iron has been seen by many as a welcome influx of healthy competition.

South African water engineers are as well educated as any, of course, and fully aware of ductile’s merits. In many cases, the first question they asked Stan Diesel, the general sales manager of Biwater Pipes Pty, was simply: “Where have you been?”

Case studies

From a standing start, we have already sold in excess of 100km of product into the country, and the high-profile schemes for which we have supplied include Langebaan (14.1km), Klipspringer (17.5km) and Nantes.

At 3km, Nantes was a relatively low-volume order – but the project gave us an opportunity to demonstrate ductile’s easy lay characteristics.

The pipeline runs through mountainous country in the Western Cape that is subject to strict environmental controls. A prohibition on vehicle access meant that many of the pipes had to be literally manhandled to site, and ductile’s push-fit installation system was the only one considered suitable for the area’s fragile ecology.

Ductile’s pressure performance was the key issue at Klipspringer, where the 60Bar main would have been well beyond the capability of any other material. We also arranged installation training for the contractor – who had never been called upon to lay ductile iron pipe before – ensuring timely commissioning of a vital water supply for a newly opened diamond mine.

Once the main is correctly installed in the ground, it is the low whole-life costs of ductile that weigh heavily in its favour. Bury and forget is a vital consideration in a developing country such as South Africa because, when funding to install the pipeline in the first instance is difficult to secure, a long-term commitment to regular maintenance is an unacceptable financial burden.

Proven solution

Water engineers are now sufficiently confident in the durability of ductile iron to specify it for mains in hostile environments where other materials have failed, sometimes within a matter of months. Mid Vaal Water’s replacement of a corroded steel pipeline is just one case in point, and ductile has also been used in place of asbestos cement, GRP and plastic.

Unaccounted-for water is a familiar concept throughout the world, but it assumes more than usual importance in South Africa, where unauthorised connections are a major problem. Plastic mains are especially vulnerable, but the robustness of ductile iron defeats even the most determined.

As a newcomer to South Africa, possibly Biwater’s biggest advantage has been its ability to approach the market with an open mind, free from the assumptions and preconceptions that can blunt the awareness of long-established suppliers.

We have made a point of listening to what the water companies, municipalities and consulting engineers tell us they need, rather than assuming we know already.

Willingness to engage with problems on-site has formed the basis of many good relationships with contractors, who are often kept at arms-length by other suppliers, with the emphasis on training in the best way of installing what is for many a novel pipeline system.

For this, we have been able to draw on our Induct Plus training programme, which was originally developed for British contractors. Following several briefing visits from our UK-based specialists, the practical expertise it embodies is now being passed on through a local consultant, in line with DWAF’s skills transfer objectives.

In many cases it is not just professional pipelaying contractors that benefit from this training, because very often DWAF makes it a condition that the local people who will use the water system help with its installation in order to spread new skills as widely as possible through the community.

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