Investigating water and the scarcity of skills

Water — a critical and finite resource — doesn’t appear to be top of mind for people. There is news of drought and restrictions yet water is wasted.

It’s clear that water is undervalued. Further challenges include an ageing water infrastructure, increasing water demand and inadequate supply. Now add a critical skills shortage into the mix.

The National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) held a Discussion Forum on ‘Skills Drought in the Water Sector’. The event ran from 26-27 September 2016 in Gauteng. It was hosted by the NSTF Science Councils sector, in collaboration with the Water Research Commission (WRC).

Global water crisis

The World Economic Forum’s ‘2015 Global Risk Report’ named ‘water crises’ as the world’s greatest risk in 2015. It remains at the same level of risk in 2016, but climate change (which involves water) is now positioned as the number one threat.

Complexity of the water sector

The SA water value chain is complex and the skills needed in this sector echo this. The skills go far beyond civil engineering, such as legal, financial and negotiation skills. In the EWSETA Sector Skills Plan (2011-2016), the highest number of skills gaps is in management staff.

Emerging occupations/skills have been identified. In some cases, there are skills gaps with no title for that specific job, as well as jobs that aren’t part of the official occupation codes. How does one develop skills that aren’t recognised in the system?

Considering research and innovation

While the skills needed in the water sector are expanding, so too is the research agenda and its associated skills. New areas include Big Data, the Green Economy and changing behaviours around water.

There are SA innovations that have become game changers. Consider the purple pipes placed alongside the normal pipe system for recycling up to 80% of water in households. New sanitation research has produced a low-flush toilet system that saves 40-70% of water and has a biodigestive system that produces energy.

There is research that can lead to business opportunities, such as in resource recovery (mining water for minerals). With significant financial gain, producing drinking water becomes a by-product and part of the company’s social responsibility

Water research is now transdisciplinary, cutting across sectors and using integrated approaches.

Bringing innovation to market

While South Africa has some excellent research, the challenge is around development stage funding. This is the phase post initial research and before commercialisation.

One of the solutions to commercialising technology involves developing technology business incubators. Part of an initiative driven by the Technology Innovation Agency, this industrialisation of research brings together technology, the commercial world and technology entrepreneurship.

The initiative includes an accredited qualification: the Technology and Innovation Manager. This Masters programme is a world first and begins in January 2017.

Why the critical lack of skills?

Beyond a history of skills shortages in the sector, the reason for the skills scarcity is similar to many sectors: lack of coordination around capacity building and training, duplication of effort and a lack of aligned strategic direction and planning. In addition, there’s uncertainty around qualifications, career paths and standardisation mechanisms.

Chapter 15 of the National Water Resources Strategy 2nd Edition (2013) addresses much of this and the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has made progress on strategic actions. However, a great deal more needs to be done by all stakeholders.

A specific training challenge to be addressed is around the group of unemployed graduated students. Water industry education and training is just the start because, without experience, graduated students can’t qualify nor join professional bodies. However, industry hasn’t bought into internships and mentorships.


Following are some of the recommendations from the discussion forum:

  • Skills around management, leadership and communication should be integrated into training
  • Develop and promote ‘water sector’-type qualifications and careers but these need to be defined first
  • Develop short courses around new skills for continuing professional development
  • Government projects should use the graduate pool so students gain experience

The NSTF will release a full discussion report within two weeks. Currently individual presentations and video clips can be found on the NSTF website (

Media Liaison: Fulufhelo Gelebe
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