Sustainability Excellence Company of the Year – TDI Award Finalist

Case Studies / 14 December 2021 by Umvoto Africa /
Credit : Umvoto Africa

Umvoto Africa (Pty) Ltd (Umvoto) is a solution orientated, earth science and water resource consultancy, based in Muizenberg, Cape Town. From its founding in 1992, tireless scientific rigour and bold creativity have consistently positioned Umvoto at the forefront of visionary undertakings toward achieving environmental, economic and social sustainability. Our core specialisation has always been in groundwater assessments, geological mapping and hydrogeological monitoring techniques. Over the past three decades we have evolved into a multi-disciplinary focus of integrated water resource management (IWRM), disaster- and geo-risk reduction, assessment and prevention, geoinformatics and remote sensing. Allied to this is an evolving focus on community education and engagement as an all-encompassing management approach to sustainable water-use beneficiation.

As cities grow and freshwater resources diminish under climate change, urban growth, and pollution, people will become increasingly reliant on alternative water resources, such as groundwater. Water is and will be our greatest challenge. By 2050, 10 billion people will be living on our planet and cities will support 70% of our population, according to the United Nations (UN). Cities have been a major driver of climate change and are now key to the solution. Umvoto has set the trend in southern Africa, encouraging cities to be resilient against extremes through adaptive and sustainable water management approaches while maintaining balance with the natural and social environment. We advocate that reinstating natural systems provides many co-benefits for wellbeing and urban resilience. Umvoto develop strategies that work towards an IWRM approach to water exploration and management, aimed at diversifying water supply and ensuring water resilience. This approach is underpinned with fulfilling the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) directive (see Figure 1) and we are recognised by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the United Nations as official Global Compact Participants.

Figure 1: The United Nations (UN) Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) which have been at the core of Umvoto’s work on the three major  aquifers of the City of Cape Town (CoCT). The CoCT made a pledge to it’s people which Umvoto helped achieve right at the forefront.  Through the work undertaken, Umvoto has directly addressed the goals for clean water and sanitation by augmenting bulk water supply as a result of immediate action against climate change during the Day-zero drought. In the long term, this leads to protection of life on  land in a more sustainable city with happy communities.

Following the “Day-Zero” drought, Umvoto pioneered the implementation of groundwater development projects for the diversification of the City of Cape Town’s (CoCT) bulk water supply. In a bid to increase water resilience, Umvoto spearheaded the idea and realisation that conjunctive groundwater and surface water supply is a solution through the Atlantis Water Resource Management Scheme (AWRMS) refurbishment and restoration, development and reclamation of the Cape Flats Aquifer (CFA) using managed aquifer recharge (MAR), and the development of the City’s wellfields (first one being the Steenbras Wellfield) in the deep fractured Table Mountain Group Aquifer (TMGA) (see Map 1). These three projects led to the establishment of the CoCT’s New Water Programme (NWP) to ensure diverse, safe, reliable water supply for years to come. Umvoto long recognised the CFA and TMGA as potentials for water supply diversity with the successful Citrusdal Artesian Groundwater Exploration, development and management of the Hermanus TMGA wellfields, development of Deep Artesian Groundwater for Oudtshoorn Municipal Supply (DAGEOS) and the feasibility studies of the CFA.


Water Resilience Requires an Innovative and Collaborative Approach (SDG 6 & 13)

Implementation of these groundwater supply systems are vital in combatting emergency drought conditions, rises in population, and associated diminishing water supply systems. With inter-disciplinary science, from ground-based geology to space-based geodesy, and trans-disciplinary collaboration between scientists, engineers, municipalities and communities, long-term water supply is secured. 

Sustainability and water resilience is especially showcased through implementation of MAR which utilises the high recharge rates of the False Bay and Atlantic seaboard dunescapes (see Map 1). The Atlantis MAR scheme refurbishment with innovative designs and technologies, and upgrading of existing infrastructure ensures renewed robustness and longevity. In the CFA, Umvoto’s visionary MAR concepts involving all spheres of the natural and urban environment were realised through hard work and rigorous stakeholder engagement (see Figure 2). Not only does MAR employ wise water re-use to increase storage and groundwater availability, but it combats pollution by injecting cleaner water into contaminated reservoirs, improving overall aquifer quality, promoting marine ecosystem health through mitigation of effluent related algal blooms, and minimising the risk of coastal saline intrusion. A perfect balance between MAR and abstraction ensures a clean, sustainable water supply for all that will reinstate historical ecosystem function.

Figure 2: Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) concepts that are implemented in the Cape Flats Aquifer (CFA) as well as Atlantis Aquifer. Wise water re-use entails redirecting stormwater and water from treatment plants into the aquifer through infiltration basins and injection boreholes. This improves water quality of polluted groundwater reservoirs, controls the risk of urban flooding, provides an increased water budget for both agricultural and bulk water supply, mitigates algal blooms in False Bay and serves as a saline intrusion barrier. Wetlands are restored and protected to ensure clean, natural water pathways into the aquifer.

Ambitious undertakings at Steenbras Wellfield produced high yielding boreholes up to ~1 km deep to augment surface water supply (see Map 1). It was only possible with decades of baseline monitoring to provide a comprehensive conceptual understanding of the complex aquifer system. This forms the basis of Umvoto’s integral “monitor, model, manage” approach – an ideal feedback loop. The Steenbras Wellfield is pioneering and cost-effective as it facilitates easy integration with existing Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) infrastructure at Steenbras Dam, increasing both water and energy resilience with the adjoining Steenbras Dam hydropower pumped storage scheme. This culmination of science and engineering boosts CoCT’s investment tenureship. 

Collectively, the three groundwater systems spearheaded by Umvoto plans to increase the City’s long-term water supply by ~130 Ml/day within the next decade. On-going monitoring and modelling of the resource’s response to natural and induced changes are vital and ongoing. Sustainability cannot be assured without long-term use and monitoring of the aquifers. Keeping pace with technology and scientific advances is a key success factor for Umvoto in its integration philosophy. Umvoto collaboratively initiated the development of hydro-geodetic monitoring in southern Africa. Some eight years ago, live telemetry systems were already put in place on Umvoto’s Hermanus Wellfields, and today the latest GNSS transmitters provide real-time hydro-geodetic data for the Steenbras Wellfield, which is used to ensure the sustainability of aquifer storage potential.

Overhauling our data management systems were essential in coping with the in-flood of new, expanding datasets. The implementation of a new database and automated processes facilitates storage and ease of access. Effortless workflow structures all the way from the field to the final report ensures outputs of utmost quality, and provides a proactive monitoring tool that supplements decisions in our “monitor, model, manage” approach. The secret is to avoid over-automation and balance it with scrutiny of the trained eye. It is this holistic approach to IWRM which makes Umvoto successful. 

Conjunctive Water Security and Ecological Sustainability (SDG 15) 

The Cape Floral Region, a UNESCO world heritage site, is important in terms of biodiversity, density and number of endemic species. The impact of groundwater abstraction on this protected environment needs to be well understood to avoid damaging effects. Establishing a symbiosis between environmental and urban needs ensures potable water is derived from a healthy aquifer in a healthy, functioning environment. A directive at Umvoto. 

A good understanding of the ecological systems at hand are developed through baseline monitoring and wetlands delineated with modern remote sensing techniques. Through multidisciplinary monitoring of these groundwater-surface water interactions, early warning systems are in place prior to large-scale abstraction. The scale of this bulk water supply monitoring is unique in southern Africa and is insisted upon on by Umvoto. Collaborative search-and-rescue followed by restoration and rehabilitation of endangered species were undertaken at each site footprint in Steenbras, and every measure was taken to minimise drilling impacts across all three aquifers. Our team has evolved to include several environmental control officers (ECOs) and our on-site personnel are adapted for a collaborative approach with all environmental stakeholders. The pristine setting of the Cape Floral Region means that all activity had to be carefully planned, managed, and monitored to minimise impact on rare and endangered flora and fauna. 

Vibrant wetlands originally carpeted the Cape Floral Region landscape, but many have been lost to urbanisation and farming. Their restoration and conservation ensures a greener living space for individuals and communities. Wetlands serve as nature’s filters and improve overall groundwater quality through bioremediation, so it is important to protect these zones for plant and animal life and integrity of the aquifers. Infiltration basins used for MAR have become vibrant wetland habitats with reedbeds and aquatic life, with Umvoto monitoring the water quality and inflow volumes to ensure it remains healthy for plant and animal life as well as the integrity of the aquifer. With a variety of hydrological and ecological monitoring techniques employed, thresholds are set to ensure ecosystem health is maintained. 

The three aquifers are further protected through designation of land as Nature Reserves and delineation of Groundwater Protection Zones (GPZs), both of which limit the development of land use activities that pose contamination risk. This ensures that future generations have a world-class city with water security, but are able to experience the beauty of the unique fynbos biome biodiversity. 

Critical Zone Observatories: From Groundwater to Community (SDG 11) 

Umvoto developed and recommended the GPZ strategies across all three aquifers which aim to control infrastructural development and insist on the conjunctive use and benefits of the aquifers for communities, industry, individuals and the environment. This approach is unique as our GPZ work is ahead of legislative framework in the South African context. Adopting experiences from various countries and the scientific community, our expertise has shaped the future landscape of the sprawling CoCT. 

It is important to realise that the landscape which we develop and inhabit is critical to sustaining all terrestrial life and natural habitats. The Umvoto Foundation (TUF), a co-founded non-profit company, spearheads community capacity building to achieve clean and healthy urban ecosystems. TUF’s first initiative, the Hoerikwaggo Critical Zone Observatory, began with a realisation that groundwater supply systems are not designed to address the impact of society on the aquifer – the concept of social hydrogeology. TUF identified concerns and perceptions from the community through the Lotus Canal Challenge which focused on the balance between urban development and nature conservation, and a greater understanding of the impacts that communities and individuals have on ecosystem functions. Six Collaborative Zones (see Figure 3), which are crucial water pathways to rehabilitate and protect, were established for the community. These provide a peaceful platform for protest and a route to reconciliation through education and Transformative Art, ultimately empowering the community while protecting the aquifer. This is the foundational work for more sustainable cities and communities that Umvoto stands by and strives towards. 

Figure 3: Six Collaborative Zones which are crucial for the rehabilitation, protection and development of the vast CFA water resource. Together they form the Watercatcher of the Hoerikwaggo Critical Zone Observatory. These critical zones provide the common reference point to bring together physical and social scientists, engineers, administration officials and, most importantly, the community for a common goal – protecting the resource. This is achieved through collaborative education, outreach and Transformative Art which break the bounds of science, but are complimented by it’s meticulous precision and rigour.

Sustainability Excellence 

Umvoto has adopted a holistic approach to sustainable water resource management with the objective of optimising the resources available for beneficial use. Umvoto recognises the value in multi-disciplinary collaborations, which is reflected in our diverse technical team of geologists, hydrogeologists, environmentalists, climatologists, and geospatial analysts, and are paramount to our holistic conceptual understanding any system. Through our ongoing monitor, model and manage approach, we work with clients and communities to develop the most effective implementation model, leading to co-management of the resource. Umvoto’s ability to adapt, diversify and accommodate scientific trends and the changing environment are paramount to our success in balancing the client’s needs while fulfilling the SDG directives for a sustainable future.

Umvoto has always been at the forefront of meticulous science that keeps sustainability and IWRM at its core. Environmental and groundwater sustainability requires an iterative approach that continues to evolve as understanding of the dynamic resource. Utilisation of groundwater ensures adaptive resilience for cities but comes with the responsibility of recognising the use and management directly affects the natural environment, and the reaction of the environment directly affects the health of the resource. This is why Umvoto advocates and implements world class technologies and techniques, to monitor abstraction from and response of every aquifer system we work on, allowing for an adaptive rather than reactive management approach which ensures prolonged use of and sustainable management of one of earth’s most precious sources of fresh water.

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