/ 29 April 2011

Plan now before taps run dry

Ask people where water comes from and they’re likely to answer: “a tap”. We take for granted the feats of engineering and networks of pipelines that carry clean water from rivers to our homes — until the taps run dry or there are fears that our drinking water is polluted.

Water is cheap, so we use it carelessly without a second thought. But South Africa is rapidly approaching the full utilisation of its fresh water resources, says the department of water affairs.

That doesn’t mean we are going to run out of water, says Helgard Muller, the department’s manager of water services, but water is certainly going to cost more in the future. There is a similarity between the water supply situation and that of electricity supply that resulted in rolling blackouts in 2008 and sharp hikes in the price of power. The government cannot delay making decisions about how much fresh water we will need in the future and where it will come from.

“The development of new water resources infrastructure is a complex and time-consuming process that typically takes more than a decade from inception to commissioning. For larger and more complex projects with environmental and political sensitivities, the lead time may be more than two decades,” according to a report commissioned by the department, titled “Assessment of the ultimate potential and future marginal cost of water resources in South Africa”.

The department commissioned the study to look at the options to augment water supply to meet the future needs of the country’s major urban areas. The full utilisation of fresh water will not be reached at a common date for the whole country. For example, the Vaal River system, which supplies nearly all the urban, industrial and mining development in Gauteng and parts of Mpumalanga and the North West, will have sufficient water “at a reasonable cost” until about 2050, according to the report published in September 2010. KwaZulu-Natal’s coastal metropolitan areas have longer. But Cape Town’s water supply options are likely to be exhausted in the next 20 years.

“The greater Cape Town area is likely to become totally dependent on the desalination of seawater and the reuse of water for any growth in water requirements from about 2030,” says the report.

The problem for residents of Cape Town is that the cost of reusing waste water and desalination is high.

Standards for reuse
The report states that in Cape Town, “a large portion of the water that is currently discharged to the sea after one cycle of use could be treated to the required standards for reuse”.

But the cost of augmenting the city’s water supply with reused water is nearly four times what it would cost to use groundwater, about R7,50 a cubic metre compared with R1,50 a cubic metre, for example, and about double what it would cost to divert water from the Upper Breede River or increase the capacity of the existing Voëlvlei scheme (between R3 and R4 a cubic metre). And if the city has to resort to desalinating sea water, the cost becomes six times more expensive than groundwater, at nearly R12 a cubic metre.

In Gauteng the study identified the most cost-effective ways of increasing the availability of water in the Vaal River system as, first, the implementation of phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a massive dam and tunnel construction project that transfers water from catchment areas in the mountains of Lesotho to the Vaal River system. This would increase the marginal cost of water in the area from about R5 a cubic metre to about R6.

The next ranked option, in terms of cost, is the use of acid mine drainage. This would entail the collection and processing of acidic water draining from defunct mines on the Reef to be supplied to urban users. It would increase the price to R8 a cubic metre. The treatment and reuse of waste water would also cost about R8, according to Muller. Other increasingly more expensive options include transferring water from the Orange, Thukela and Mzimbuvu rivers to the Vaal River. A “conceptual assessment” has even been made of taking water from the Zambezi River and pumping it through a pipeline to the Gauteng area.

The ultimate fall-back option is the desalination of seawater, but this would cost as much as R24 a cubic metre because of the energy that would be required to pump water from the coast to Gauteng.

These additional costs will ultimately be borne by consumers. But if the price of water increases, it may mean that some people won’t have access to it because it will be too expensive, says Mao Amis, the manager of the integrated catchment management programme of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in South Africa.

Many countries look to South Africa because the right to water is written into our Constitution. The number of households with access to water increased from 59% in 1994 to 93%, says Muller. We have 800 supply schemes that service the country’s population of 49-million. By 2050 more people will be living in cities and security of supply will be important.

Winning through water conservation
The department’s report notes that water conservation and water-demand management will reduce demand and thereby extend the life span of existing resources. But city managers aren’t putting money into water conservation because you can’t win votes with water conservation, says Muller.

We need to look at where water is actually coming from — the catchment areas, Amis told a recent media briefing in Johannesburg. Such catchment areas are in a poor state. He noted that in planning for the future, South Africa was not looking at environmental factors. For example, in the recent budget speech, there was no concrete discussion of what we need to do to protect the environment.

In Mpumalanga, he said, 15% of the run-off comes from 13% of the surface area of the province and 37% of those areas have applications for mining licences pending.

The long-term effect of mining in water catchments includes a devastating impact on the future water security of South Africa, says the WWF. “We are asking that areas of key water catchments, groundwater recharge and ecosystems recognised as threatened or sensitive should be conserved,” says Mark Botha, the head of biodiversity at the WWF in a statement.

The WWF is urging companies interested in mining and prospecting in South Africa to choose areas that are not critically important for the environment. The conservation organisation is also asking that South Africa’s financial institutions avoid funding mining companies or projects targeting resources in these areas.

The WWF says that in the past few years there has been an increase in mining companies applying for mining or prospecting rights in areas that it deems vital for conservation. The WWF and 13 other non-governmental organisations have compiled a list of mining no-go areas.

Amis says that South Africa’s catchment areas are badly degraded. For instance, we lose 7% of our water to alien species. We need to look at how the different sectors government, civil society and business can work together because water security poses risks for business, human wellbeing as well as economic growth and development.

Large financial investment will be required to secure the future of South Africa’s water resources, the report says. The implementation of these projects needs to be expedited and decision-making streamlined. The report also recommends that a national strategy be developed on the preferential use of the country’s water resources. The time to panic about our water security is now, says Amis.