South Africa is a water-scarce country and the management of its water sources as well as related supply and treatment infrastructure will always be a critical priority.

By Leslie van Zyl-Smit*

The recent drought conditions experienced in large parts of South Africa have had a negative impact on water supply, as well as most sectors of the economy, including agriculture, industry, tourism and food security.

As part of the South African government’s drought relief measures, numerous projects throughout the country have been fasttracked as so-called ‘emergency water supply interventions’, in an attempt to alleviate the desperate need of communities that have been affected by the drought conditions. Due to the time constraints on these projects, work is often implemented without sufficient engineering design, project management or budget allowances.

These emergency project implementation scenarios remind one of a well-known project management saying: “Good, cheap, fast – you can pick any two.” Implementing projects as an emergency by default implicates fast turnaround times, which leaves clients with the option of choosing between “good” or “cheap” solutions. If one throws into the decision-making process a limited budget, these so-called emergency projects are doomed to be classified as “cheap” and “fast”.

South Africa, like the rest of the world, is facing unprecedented socio-economic challenges, as communities and leadership struggle to come to terms with the devastating aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.

For the unforeseeable future, funding for capital projects will be strained due to the costly measures implemented in mitigating the impact of the pandemic and we can illafford implementation of “cheap” and “fast” solutions when it comes to infrastructure needed to provide much needed basic services. Although the desperate drought conditions left many communities with no alternative but to implement emergency measures, such projects should be limited at all cost.

Another kind of drought

Unfortunately, it is not only projects given emergency status that currently suffer from inadequate project management and engineering design within the South African water services sector.

Apart from the lack of annual rainfall, South Africa is also experiencing a drought in the form of a skilled and experienced workforce. This is especially true when it comes to technically demanding disciplines involved in providing complex engineering and project management solutions.

Recent years have been known for the mass exodus of skilled resources from the country and an overemphasis on the social cultures within organisations have come at the cost of a much-needed technical culture that fosters work ethics and skills development. To a large degree, we have lost the technical ability to develop and implement long-term planning strategies in the form of water services development plans, and few resources are skilled enough to apply supply chain management procurement regulations and contract data.

The way forward

With the Covid-19 pandemic reaching its peak, many of us have much time at hand to reflect on the way we do business and implement projects within the South African context. There is no short-term, quick-fix solution to the challenges faced by project teams implementing waterrelated infrastructure.

Perhaps it is time to get back to project management basics by consulting expert judgment and focusing on the phase gates that define project life-cycle stages.

According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge best practice guidelines for effective project management, the following knowledge areas are applicable to the successful initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and control, as well as project close-out processes applicable to any project:

• integration management
• scope management
•cost management
•schedule management
•quality management
•resource management
•communications management
•risk management
•procurement management
•stakeholder management.

The effective management of the above knowledge areas is traditionally the responsibility of the employer (delegated to the employer’s agent or representative or engineer depending on the condition of contract). However, where engineering design and project management services are not provided to required standards, contractors are forced to take up much of the management responsibilities in an effort to mitigate project risk and ensure effective project implementation.

Therefore, in an attempt to ensure sustainable operations, wise contractors are investing in professional, in-house design capacity, as well as resources able to provide project management and contract administration services.

South Africa can no longer afford not to deliver on much needed basic services to its communities. Contractors can contribute to project management requirements in many ways; however, it remains the responsibility of the employer to ensure effective stakeholder, procurement and scope management.

Let’s get back to the basics of sound engineering design, planning, project management and costeffective implementation of sustainable water solutions.

*Leslie van Zyl-Smit, Pr Eng, Pr CPM, PMP, is a director at REDE.

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