One big drought in the Vaal River catchment area over the next eight years could jeopardise the region’s agricultural and industrial output, senior Eskom and Sasol managers have warned.
Speaking at the end of the World Water Forum in Marseille, France, they said the period from now until 2020, when the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) starts delivering water to the Vaal, was one of “major risk”.
While a drought would not necessarily pose a threat to the two corporations’ ability to generate power and manufacture fuel — both Eskom and Sasol are deemed “strategic water users” and unlikely to have their supply curtailed — the same would not apply to others.
Particularly vulnerable would be large industrial water users, agriculture and municipalities located in and around the country’s economic heartland, Gauteng.
Eskom’s general manager for water and environmental operations, Nandha Govender, told the South African Press Association a drought would see the region “pushing the boundaries” of available water supply.
“The capacity of the Vaal system is a major risk. We see the crucial period being between now and 2020, when phase two of the LHWP starts delivering water.
“The risk lies with large industrial water users, agriculture and the municipalities … It’s a situation we don’t want to get into.”
Govender also said although 2020 was the date set by government for phase two to start delivering more water to the region, large projects of this nature often missed such targets, and the first water might only start flowing from Lesotho in 2021, or 2022.
Sasol sustainable water manager Andries Meyer said while the region “hadn’t had a drought for a long time”, and had enjoyed good rains in recent years, this did not mean a drought would not occur.
While Sasol would focus on improving its water-use efficiency, this alone would not be enough to significantly reduce the risk.
The answer lay in developing partnerships between the private and public sector on the one hand, and national, provincial and local government on the other.
“Particularly in the areas of municipal water conservation demand management, as well as in the agriculture sector. This is the way to go to reduce the risk, particularly in the Vaal.”
The government needed to foster incentive schemes to encourage and promote such partnerships, Meyer said.
Govender also noted that while Eskom was doing a lot to improve its water-use efficiencies, this alone would not solve the region’s supply problems.
Currently, it was producing more electricity using less water, and had taken a “step change” in its water management practices. Its water usage would “peak” in 2021, but start dropping after this date as the new dry-cooled power stations, Medupi and Kusile, came on line, together with a shift to renewables and nuclear power.
In the short term, however, the solution lay with encouraging both local government and the agriculture sector to manage water more efficiently, he said.
According to reports, many municipalities in the region lose a quarter to a third of the water they abstract from the Vaal system through leaks. The region has also had problems with farmers illegally abstracting water.
Like his Sasol counterpart, Govender also stressed the importance of partnerships to solve this problem.
“We need to lead by example. There is not sufficient water, but working in partnerships, with national and local government, we can address challenges of water availability and quality.”
Asked how “tight” things would get for Eskom in the event of a big drought — the utility still relies largely on “wet” coal-fired power stations for the bulk of its electricity generation — Govender said there was concern.
“We’re definitely concerned. Not from a point of view of our water supply, because we are a strategic water user, in terms of the hierarchy of allocation. We wouldn’t be necessarily curtailed, not in terms of our production.
“The biggest risk we see is reputational — in terms of water being allocated to energy production versus water being taken away for basic human needs, and people not being able to do what they’re used to doing because of restrictions.
“Also with agriculture and water for food security, there you’re going to have a lot of pressure,” he said.
Eskom, which produces almost all South Africa’s electricity, uses about 330-million cubic metres of water a year to keep its power stations running; Sasol, which produces 40% of the country’s fuel, uses just over a third of this amount: 120-million cubic metres.
According to the department of water affairs, phase two of the LHWP, which includes the construction of the Polihali Dam in Lesotho, is set to deliver an additional 15 cubic metres of water a second to the Vaal system from July 2020.
According to last month’s national budget, South Africa is set to spend R75-billion constructing new and renovating old water supply and sanitation systems over the next three years. – Sapa