Plans by the eThekwini municipality to use recycled water to provide 10% of its water needs have been dealt a heavy blow by citizens.
A petition with 5 000 signatures was handed over to the municipality as part of the environmental impact assessment, soundly rejecting the idea.
The Mercury reported many of the complaints dealt with perceived health issues in the water; religious objections to using recycled water; the "yuck" factor of where the water came from; and the belief that water could come from elsewhere instead.
The plan is for two water recycling plants to be built, adding 117 mega litres of water to the supply every day. This would mainly supply the northern suburbs, where the greatest growth is projected to happen in coming decades. This would equate to 10% of the city's water supply.
This initiative comes after years of warnings about growing water constraints in the area. In its reconciliation strategy for the coastal metropolitan area, the department of water affairs said above-average rainfall had kept the major dams in the area full. "This has led to a false sense of security regarding the water supply situation," it said.
"A below-average rainfall period will result in the need for water restrictions with their associated impacts on the economy," it said.
The last meeting of the steering committee dealing with the area's water issues also warned about challenges to water security. "The water situation in the metropolitan area is such that the water use already exceeds the assured supply of water."
Linda Page, spokesperson for the department, said there were a host of measures racing to try solve the water crunch. These include major infrastructure development of the Spring Grove and Hazelmere dams, and the Lower Thukela bulk water supply scheme. To bridge the gap until these are online, water conservation and demand management – things like fixing leaks – will be needed, she said.
"The use of treated effluent from wastewater works and the desalination of saltwater are current measures being implemented and studied," she said.
While recycled water is not new globally, it is in South Africa. Beaufort West in the Western Cape has had a scheme running since January 2011. The Gamka Dam, which supplied all its drinking water, dried up and its 8 000 households could only get five litres a day from trucks.
A R42-million water reclamation plant was built and has had no reported incidents of water-borne disease.
Windhoek has been using recycled water for 42 years and has also had no outbreaks of water-borne disease. eThekwini already has a reuse plant, but its water is only used for industry.
Golder Associates, which is doing the public consultation process, said: "Crucial water shortages, coupled with increased water demand, have brought the eThekwini municipality to a critical point, and the issues of water supply and use cannot be deferred."
It also concluded in its basic assessment report that "the risk of exposure to PPCPs, EDCs, PAHs, and pathogens from drinking highly treated reused water does not exceed, and in many cases may be substantially lower that, the risk of exposure to the same from drinking water from existing conventionally treated water supplies".
Speaking at a conference on water recycling earlier this year, Dr Anthony Turton, vice-president of the International Water Resource Association, said perception was the main problem for recycled water. "I don’t think this is a technology problem, it's a mind-set problem."
In response to the concerns, Neil Macleod, head of water and sanitation for eThekwini, said people in the area have been drinking polluted water for years because of problems in treatment works in other municipalities. The water that would come from a recycling facility would actually be cleaner than this. "The water that flows back into our rivers after treatment is of better quality than the water in the rivers that enter our works," he said.
The water from these reuse works would then sit in storage tanks, where it would be tested before being blended into drinking water, he said. This would mean that 70% of water would be from a traditional source and 30% would be reused water.
While people in the petition asked for desalination to be used instead, Macleod said this was very expensive. "We are not talking about paying a little bit more. Our current works produce water at just over R4 per kilolitre. Injecting water from a desalination plant will cost more than R10 per kilolitre," he said.
Another idea put forward by the petition was to focus attention on addressing non-revenue water (leakages), instead of recycling water. This is a priority area that President Jacob Zuma mentioned in the State of the Nation address and that the department of water affairs has given a great deal of attention to. Nationally a third of water is lost this way, and the number stands a fraction higher at 36% for eThekwini.
But Macleod said replacing the bursting pipes in the municipality would cost R1-billion and at best would still leave a 15% water loss. "This will increase the water tariff by more than the cost of lost water," he said.
Page said the problems raised by the petition would be included in the basic assessment report, which will be submitted to the KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture and environmental affairs early this month. The pros and cons will then be weighed up and a decision could possibly be made by July 2013, she said.