Let’s Solve Water
With a vast portfolio of leading-edge solutions, Xylem’s recently unified Africa division is united in its ambition to safeguard the continent’s most precious (and scarce) resource
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Donovan Smith
Soaring human demand for water has created a crisis.
Despite covering almost 70 percent of the earth, we rely on the 2.5 percent of water which is fresh, and 99 percent of that is not easily accessible, the majority being trapped in glaciers and snowfields.
Indeed, it is fascinating to consider that the water we drink today has likely existed in one form or another for hundreds of millions of years, a resource once consumed by dinosaurs who roamed the earth. Since then the amount of freshwater on our planet has remained fairly constant, recycled through the atmosphere and back onto earth countless times to fuel and feed all forms of life.
Innovation through the ages, from Archimedes’ Screw and Roman aqueducts to turbines and distillation techniques, have enabled humans to make the most out of water, the leveraging of which has fuelled industrial and agrarian revolutions all over the world.
But there is a problem. The last two centuries have witnessed a population explosion unlike anything seen in civilizational history – in 1800 there were a little under 990 million people on earth, whereas today that figure reads closer to 7.8 billion.
Africa is home to around 1.33 billion people, or 16.7 percent of the global population. Most estimates agree that at current growth rates (around 2.5 percent a year), the continent will have to support double the number of inhabitants by as early as 2050.
The picture is therefore very clear. The need for innovation in order to preserve and sustainably manage freshwater resources has never been more pressing, and organisations such as Xylem are at the forefront of these efforts.
“Technology and innovation enable us to be more productive, perform our duties or tasks more efficiently, and resolve issues quicker,” comments Vinesan Govender, Engineering Manager at Xylem Africa, a division formed in 2019 to unify the US multinational’s operations in the region.
“However, these are just tools – they are only effective based on how we as a society embrace them. Technology is driven by society’s attitude and resolve to solve a crisis.
“Our motto – let’s solve water – is our purpose. It is our mission to unite society and react to a crisis. Our technologies are born out of this resolve, to serve this purpose. Critical to the sustainable management of water is attitude, and technology is a product of attitude.”
Govender joined Xylem last year, the latest chapter in his engineering career which has taken a wholly different direction from when he started out more than two decades ago.
Having spent five years working in missile research and development, he made a conscious decision to put his skills towards a more positive cause, the move into water being confirmed when a former colleague introduced him to innovations in water purification.
After spells at Rand Water, Mott MacDonald PDNA and Veolia Water Technologies, he now helps to steer the development of Xylem’s portfolio.
This portfolio is vast, and includes a tremendous number of pioneering pumping, analysis, treatment, monitoring and control, metrology and non-revenue water (NRW) management solutions.
It covers an enormous base of use cases and industries such as agriculture, commercial buildings, construction, power generation, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, mining, oil and gas, residential, municipal and transportation, to name but a few.
From individual laymen and NGOs to large corporates and utilities, Xylem engages a huge variety of clients across the globe, its Africa division employing approximately 250 dedicated personnel.
Although relatively new, Xylem Africa brings the full suite of products, solutions and expertise that the global group has to offer, a reputation and standing that is critical to making traction in a region which the company is proudly treating as a unified entity.
And the organisation itself is unified by a single statement already referred to by Govender – let’s solve water.
This is the hallmark of Xylem around the world, its solutions designed with that single intent in mind, and employees fully engaged and bought into the mission.
“Our ethos, innovative solutions and intensive corporate social programme are all aligned to solving water,” Govender adds. “My search for a career, where I will be enabled to make a positive difference to the world, is complete.”
Beyond development and deployment of its solutions, the Engineering Manager touches on CSR as a demonstration of how Xylem Africa and its people operate with a real sense of purpose.
He mentions a programme called Watermark, which is dedicated to providing water solutions to impoverished communities and areas stricken by natural disasters, whether it be to remove floodwater, restore a drinking supply or provide water wise awareness.
“Like any business, we are driven to provide our shareholders the best returns possible, but it’s how we do it that is important,” Govender continues.
“The responsibility and ethics of the business is best understood through Watermark programmes, which have touched the lives of thousands of people and has had tangible impact on the environment across the four corners of the world.
“In Thailand, Xylem technology was used to pump the water out of the caves where the boys football team was stranded, and closer to home we helped relief efforts in the aftermath of Cyclone Idai when it struck Africa last year.”
Beyond these specific programmes, Xylem Africa also supports NGOs (most notably Engineers Without Borders USA), while employees routinely take part in clearing plastic and other litter out of water, again underlining the unified purpose to solve water.
“Watermark is not just about supporting disaster-struck communities,” Govender adds.
“It is also about the day to day initiatives driven by our employees and corporates around the world. Our employees are proud to dedicate their time to these activities – rather than posting on Facebook about what food they are eating, Xylem staff will share how many plastic packets they have cleared out of their nearby river.
“That, for me, is what our culture is all about. Everyone in the Xylem organisation cares about these initiatives and wants to contribute to society beyond their nine to five jobs.”
Unifying the agenda
The question of solving water, naturally, encompasses a tremendous array of variables up and down the water value chain, Xylem’s solutions covering almost every conceivable element of the water cycle.
One facet which underlines the sustainability of the whole system is wastage, water which is lost before reaching the end user.
Known in the industry as non-revenue water, or NRW, it is a topic which is being taken increasingly seriously at a commercial and governmental level, and for good reason. Commonly cited figures reveal that, worldwide, around 45 billion litres of water are lost every day due to pipe leakage, wasteful practices and out of date technology.
“The mindset is shifting,” Govender says. “We are moving away from a purely consumption-based approach to a preservation and sustainability mentality. Leaders in Africa are realising that driving economic improvement in their countries requires a different approach to managing water.”
Xylem has developed numerous solutions to address the issue, and ongoing pilots in South Africa are continuing to demonstrate the value of effective NRW management, something which Govender believes will help turn the tide regarding investment into such technologies.
Once more, the emphasis on NRW feeds into the wider let’s solve water mission statement.
And it is this unwavering purpose which will continue to form the focus of Xylem’s work moving forwards.
The company has a deep pipeline of completed and ongoing projects in Africa, be it collaborations with major water utilities or private enterprises, work which demonstrates the value of its solutions to solving water management issues across the region.
“As Africa urbanises, we see a large opportunity for our solutions that support smart cities, both in pumping and management,” Govender says. “In the same vein, Africa’s demand to bring water to its furthest corners provides growth opportunities for us in our water transport, treatment and management solutions.
“This includes our investment into new solutions targeted towards economically challenged societies. This is of particular interest to me, as water challenges are faced by all on the economic spectrum, and we are catering to that entire spectrum.
“We have a diverse portfolio, but it is aligned to one goal. That is what defines Xylem, and we will not navigate away from that course.”