Finding solutions for water-stressed cities

Like many bands and internet start-ups, Professor George Ekama began his career in a garage. “It was there that I learnt the basics of engineering from my father as he tinkered in our family garage. Those were much simpler days, when messages came in brown paper envelopes and no one expected a reply for a month afterwards. There was time to think.”

These days Ekama is in high demand across the globe. He has spent over 40 years researching ways to keep South Africa’s water clean and running. As such, he is frequently consulted on solutions for water-stressed cities.

“I don’t even have time to retire,” he laughs. “I reached retirement age in 2014, but the University of Cape Town (UCT) doesn’t want me to leave.”

In a way, Ekama has come full circle, having begun his academic career at UCT in the late 1960s. It was a postgraduate evening class that lanched the first step on his 40-year academic journey. There he met Professor Gerrit van Rooyen Marais, the chair of water resources and public health engineering at UCT’s department of civil engineering, and began his lifelong work in municipal and industrial wastewater treatment.

“At that time, South Africa was using US design criteria for activated sludge wastewater treatment, which was not appropriate for the way South Africans use water. Plus, there was an enormous problem with eutrophication (or algal blooms) in our dams, rivers and lakes because of the release of nutrients such as phosphates and nitrogen from trickling filter wastewater treatment plants. The filters were unable to remove the nutrients except by chemical means, which would then worsen the growing salinity problem from acid mine drainage. Finding a biological way to remove nitrogen and phosphorous was paramount in protecting South Africa’s surface water supply.”

Ekama’s resulting PhD research and early career work led to the development of the biological nitrogen and phosphorous removal activated sludge system. This was adopted into the International Water Association Activated Sludge Models 1 and 2. These two models have since been extended to change wastewater treatment from an “end of pipe” problem to a water and resource recovery system — models that are used globally as municipal and industrial wastewater design and operation tools.

Next on Ekama’s agenda was how to reduce sulphate in acid mine drainage by biological means, and research into using seawater to flush toilets as a means of conserving fresh water. Ekama strongly believes that the pioneering work into seawater flushing and urine separation toilets done in Hong Kong could be a game changer for South Africa’s water-related crises and high levels of water consumption.

It’s no surprise that Ekama has been the recipient of a number of awards throughout his career, including the National Order of Mapungubwe in Silver. He has also published 13 books and over 180 journal research papers, been a visiting professor at a number of international universities, supervised 24 PhD and 43 master’s graduates, taught courses for international water corporations and industry, and co-authored an internet learning course.

Ekama’s work continues to provide much-needed solutions to South Africa’s water problems, while inspiring future generations to follow suit.

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