In emergencies, we rush our loved ones to the nearest hospitals with the frantic hope that they will be able to get proper healthcare and be saved. What we as the public don’t realise, is that in any hospital adequate resources can mean the difference between a life saved or lost. Resources like enough educated staff, medical equipment and electricity jump to the forefront of our minds – yet it is water that is the most fundamental of them all.
Think about what would happen if you showed up at the hospital, only to find the doors shut? Although this may sound fictional and dystopic, South African hospitals have no choice but to operate in the face of our ongoing water crisis and failing water infrastructure. Despite efforts by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Rand Water and Jo’burg Water Management to assess the impact of the continuous water disruptions to clinical services, some of Africa’s largest hospitals have been forced to install whatever reserves of non-potable water possible.
In March 2020, Abeco Tanks supplied a 114 Kilolitre tank for the new Covid Ward at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. Medical Research centres have also heard the call, with Abeco installing two tanks with a combined capacity of 290 Kilolitres for essential cleaning, fire suppression, and water chilling services at the Dr George Makuru Academic Hospital.
Employees and patients at the Helen Joseph Hospital already facing extreme circumstances due to Covid-19 are now experiencing water interruptions due to the power supply failure at the Eikenhof Pumping Station. This has led to management installing three tanks, including a sprinkler tank in case of fire.
While the Gauteng government quickly focused on bringing in water tankers, longer-term solutions that accept the ongoing infrastructure crises at all facilities are needed. To ensure that core infrastructure is adequately addressed in the preparedness planning of our future hospitals, the CEO of Abeco Tanks Mannie Ramos Jnr strongly urges:
“Hospital management must conduct a risk analysis of potential water disruptions to find out the impact of a water outage within the hospital, both on existing and future structures to ensure the survival of their ability to provide their life-saving services.”
One of the primary risks to any hospital is that many of the medical air compressors that control air to their most vulnerable patients in ICU are water-cooled, making independent backup water sources as essential as generators.
The average water consumption for the various types of healthcare facilities also varies greatly. According to Greencape it ranges from 50l per day per patient for Emergency Medical Services to 450l per patient per day in Central hospitals – so it is extremely important when performing the risk assessment that management consider the realistic requirements of each sector within the facilities.
Water supply interruptions occur for a variety of reasons, from the predictable such as routine maintenance, infrastructure breaks and power outages to the completely unforeseen like water main breaks, contamination, natural disasters and increased demand due to pandemics.
According to WHO, insufficient water and the consumption of contaminated water are usually the first and main causes of ill health to affect populations during and after a disaster. This is something we experienced first-hand when our crumbling infrastructure was exacerbated in the face of a pandemic where the primary method of protection is washing hands with soap and water.
Although there are many challenges to installing water tanks on a scale large enough to make institutions disaster-resistant (including volume, cost, integration with existing plumbing, systemic security and land space), it is still essential for hospitals to seek water independence through alternatives like tanks, groundwater, rainwater capture, and wastewater recycling.
Facilities need to be prepared to provide water for drinking, sanitation, fire protection, heating and cooling to continue to serve communities that need them most. If hospitals do not confront this reality, they and their patients will face dire consequences.