Water affairs: Saving and sharing our vital resource

Thabani Myeza, head of business development at Sembcorp Utilities, said the department of water affairs’ reconciliation strategies had made people realise how big a problem parts of the country had with water.

“What was interesting was that we found that in some of our key economic clusters the water situation was already negative,” he said.

This started the thinking that everyone would have to be involved in managing water properly. This move towards working together has seen both risk and opportunity shared.

“The impact of working together has brought positives for the region. Now you see companies sitting down with water affairs and communities to work towards a common goal,” he said.

With the focus on saving water in the system that already exists, Myeza said further innovation would only come when the price of water increases.

Nandu Bhula, senior general manager at Eskom, said the company had become serious about water conservation. This was reflected in water savings and in the contracts that station managers had that linked savings to performance targets.

Technology and innovation
“We use a lot of water, clearly. But over the last 20 years we have progressively dropped our water use per KW/h by about 25%,” he said. Eskom was also planning to decommission its older and less efficient power station in the 2020s.

With its new power stations using dry cooling technology he said there was a tension between water efficiency and environmental considerations. To decrease their emissions, the new fleet of coal stations would come with flue gas desulphurisation, but this would increase their water use, he said.

The key was therefore to keep finding new technology – like a new flue gas technology in Japan which uses minimal water, he said. “The biggest concern is that new technologies come at an extreme price without any benefit for the company,” he said. This then passes the burden onto the consumer. Research and development had to be given greater support and incentives to get technologies onto the market quickly, he said.

Dr Max Clarke, director of environment and sustainability at Hatch, said energy and water issues affected every sector of the economy. “Water is interwoven with everything, not just energy,” he said.

To ensure no one sector got so much that it damaged others, there needed to be strong cross-sectoral cooperation and discussion on any new developments. “In any region there needs to be some consensus on trade-offs on what is the best use of energy and water,” he said.

He also said technological development would only be driven by an increase in costs. “The price of water is the disincentive which drives a lot of change,” he said. This was seeing previously prohibitively expensive technologies like desalination being considered.

A scarce resource
​But desalination uses huge amounts of electricity, which requires huge amounts of water to produce. So was probably not affordable overall, he said.

Dr Agathe Maupin, a researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said the only way to manage scarce resources in the future was to view everything as a nexus. “The key factor is that actions in one sector harm other sectors,” she said.

The nexus sees water, energy and agriculture as all being connected. Any action in one of these sectors would affect the others. And while it is a new type of thinking, it is already being adapted locally be organisations like the Water Research Commission, she said.

When there was a clear idea of what each leg of the nexus was doing, policy makers and developers could work on making the whole system more efficient. This was better than having to develop extra capacity, she said.

“We need to increase the productivity of resources, and the best idea is to focus on system efficiency,” she said.

This efficiency was critical in Africa, where there is very little power production. According to the World Energy Council only a third of Africans have access to electricity. The rest of their energy comes from biomass. And because of its heavy water use this made the continent the largest user of water for energy production.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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