To Dig Or Not to Dig?

New majority shareholder and director of Rolkon Trenchless Construction Faith Tlhale discusses the role the trenchless construction construction in South Africa.

A non-invasive tunnelling service for the installation of underground sewer and water pipelines; fibre optic and electrical sleeving, the trenchless construction industry has been slow to root in South Africa, due to what Tlhale says is “limited awareness”.

As one of the leaders in the field of trenchless construction, Rolkon is focused on providing better insight into this industry as a way to shift away from traditional trenching methods as the only option. “To do this, we have to show the relevance of this technology to the South African market across a range of sectors, from developers; consulting engineers and contractors to municipalities and parastatals,” said Tlhale.

Out with the old
South Africa has 197 000km of reticulation systems, the majority of which were built 30-60 years ago. This ageing infrastructure is responsible for an estimated 37% loss of capacity with the resultant impact on service delivery and new development an issue all too familiar throughout our cities and towns.

Having well exceeded their design life, these systems require re-sleeving, enlargement or replacement. In most cases, in the intervening years since initial construction, roads, utilities, and other infrastructure have been built layer on layer and the underground space in the public right-of-way is congested with pipelines and utilities. Trenchless construction helps to mitigate this situation, and fast track the upgrade of this infrastructure while limiting the disruption caused to vehicles and people in urban and peri-urban areas.

Ringing in the new
The current position of trenchless construction, particularly in KZN, is that of back-stop or problem-solver when traditional trenching methods fail to deliver. “Ironically, this role is starting to pay dividends in both the fibre and civil engineering spaces where trenchless is becoming part of the planning solution”, said Tlhale.

Investment in the South African fibre industry is conservatively estimated at R9billion over the next 3 years putting it at the countries highest-growth industry, and this is just the beginning.

Fibre connectivity is becoming a crucial selling point for commercial and residential properties and with just 18% of South Africans able to access a fibre connection, the race is on to secure an edge. When it comes to fibre installation, this has been mandated as a ‘no cut’ space, which means trenchless construction is the only way to install.

From a civil engineering point of view, KZN is benefitting from a series of freeway upgrades being undertaken by the South African National Roads Agency Ltd (SANRAL). These projects are starting to rely more heavily on drilling and trenchless technology to limit the impact of these upgrades on traffic flow.

Also in KZN, the GO!Durban rapid bus transport system has invested R1.5billion in construction in urban and peri-urban environments around Durban, where drilling and trenchless technology will be needed to limit the disruption of this work.

Environmental protection is another area of future demand, where less invasive alternatives to trenching are becoming a baseline requirement of many construction and civil engineering projects.

“Open-cut or trenching has always been the way most jobs (construction, engineering, utilities-based) are designed and completed, but as the knowledge of this approach grows and the capabilities of trenchless construction are locally tried and tested, so we believe this method of construction will become a standard by which many jobs are planned and costed,” concludes Tlhale.


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