ERWAT, a truly indigenous South African company, which provides bulk wastewater conveyance and a highly technical and proficient wastewater treatment service to some 2 000 industries and more than 3.5 million people, has a new managing director.
One man’s loss is another man’s gain. In this case, it’s two municipalities. Tumelo Gopane, an electrical engineer, and previous deputy municipal manager: Infrastructure and Technical Services at Richards Bay Municipality, is ERWAT’s new managing director. Equally at home as a technical visionary and as an administrator, Gopane knows exactly where he wants to take the company and what he wants to accomplish.
What do you wish to achieve over the next five years?
TG Besides the maintenance and improvement of ERWAT’s excellent 90% to 100% Green Drop status, we would like to put research and development high on the agenda. ERWAT has implemented some of the latest technologies and processes in the world, e.g. the Nereda wastewater treatment process.
In brief, the bacteria used to treat the wastewater in the Nereda process produce compact granules rather than flocs (flocculent sludge), which then settle much quicker in the wastewater. There is no need for pumps to drive in bacteria for each different process. With Nereda, the different bacteria do their job of removing pollutants at the same time. This means the process is faster, less energy intensive and much more compact in terms of the size of the plant. The system uses a PC-based controller to control reactors and optimise the batch process depending on water flow and temperature. With a significantly smaller physical footprint and reduced operating costs, Nereda is a smart solution.
This innovative technology was developed in Europe. ERWAT is quite capable of developing its own innovative technologies and processes. To do this, it needs to exploit its own extensive knowledge base and its decades of experience and put itself out there, collaborate, do the R&D, present its findings at conferences and forums, and continuously develop, test and improve its own innovations.
Why is this so important?
Wastewater treatment is a key issue – even ahead of electricity generation. It talks to hygiene and, if poorly managed, negatively impacts the environment. ERWAT needs to be a model example and a leader in the field of how to manage wastewater treatment and how not to damage the environment. In so doing, we can share with the rest of South Africa, even Africa, and perhaps the world. Given the complexities of Africa, with its multidisciplinary socio-economic issues, this desire to influence and effect positive change is well placed.
What can be done about poor management?
Most problems involve people, some within municipal administration and others in the application and operation of wastewater treatment plants. For example, in many rural and peri-urban areas, there is no proper spatial planning, which results in inadequate facilities. And, looking across the wider spectrum of wastewater treatment, the very people who are on the ground and operating wastewater treatment plants – those with the hands-on knowledge and experience – are least likely to be consulted when it comes to budgeting. Typically, financial people set the budgets without consulting the people on the ground. As 80% of budgets are spent operationally, adequate budgeting would resolve 95% of the problems.
Can education and training resolve some of the challenges?
In South Africa’s public sector, one of the most important changes needed is in its work culture – the way in which things get done, typically in a relaxed and unhurried manner. Performance management’s focus on compliance rather than productivity and compliance nurtures this inefficient culture. Setting goals and objectives to meet IDP requirements isn’t a problem. But, measuring individual performance against time-based goals and objectives is a problem, along with understanding the impact of project overruns, exceeding budgets, poor-quality deliverables or not delivering at all. Being technically competent is fine, but being attitudinally challenged isn’t. This has to change.
Skills development and training, to empower workers and effect change, includes soft skills, not just hard skills. Training needs are best identified by operational management and engineers, not executives in unrelated departments where adherence to the standard chart of accounts takes precedence over everything else. This is an instance in which bottom-up management applies.
Getting back to R&D… in practical terms, in which direction would you like to see ERWAT going?
The foundation obviously has to be natural science but we also have to look to innovation. We need to beneficiate. Wastewater treatment plants process two natural components – water and solid, carbonaceous waste, both of which can be beneficiated. As South Africa is a water-scarce country, innovations in water reuse must be a priority.
As for solid waste, this can be processed to produce a non-toxic, virus- and bacteria-free agricultural fertiliser or used as is to generate electricity, using a DC plasma arc furnace. The Hartebeestfontein plant uses approximately 14 MW. If we are smart, we could become our own independent electricity producer.
However, the underlying principle and driver of R&D innovation is that it must always be application oriented. For example, the municipality is responsible for the customer-to-pump-station pipeline. ERWAT is responsible for the pump station to its wastewater treatment plant. Installing a FOG (fat, oil and grease) trap at the point of entry to the plant, FOGs can be recovered and sold as additives to the fuel industry.
No matter what the innovation, it demands that the man-machine interface also be put under the microscope, the purpose of which, in working together, is to achieve greater efficiencies and reduced costs – the ultimate goals.
This takes us back to the education and training issue, does it not?
Yes, it does. The problem with many developed nations is that they have experts in specific fields. If cross-communication, collaboration and teamwork do not exist, it has a negative, counterproductive effect. Experts also do not know what it is they do not know. The same can be said of people with part knowledge and who have an ego problem. As a developing nation, and to be effective, we need multiskilled, mission-directed work teams. That must and will be a key focus. We should also remember that success is achieved through people. The wellness of employees is critical to performance and the effective management of human capital.
Summing up, how, then, do you see the future?
In five years from now, ERWAT will be seen as a highly successful and internationally recognised innovator in wastewater treatment. For this, we have Joe Mojapelo, ERWAT’s chairman, and the board of directors to thank, for presenting the future as an opportunity to develop and grow. And, in knowing what we can achieve, given this opportunity, ERWAT can only but flourish – technically and commercially. Africa is the new frontier; thereafter, it’s the world.