Cape Town’s desalination plant budget dries up

The city of Cape Town’s desalination plans have run over budget and there is no money to pay suppliers ready to deliver a huge desalination plant to Cape Town’s harbour, which would deliver 50-million litres of water a day.

The project, likely to be awarded to Fluence Corporation, was put on ice after the R1.4-billion budget was depleted on three other plants, water reuse systems and boring into aquifers.

The technology costs billions of rands, and Cape Town residents may have to foot the bill if the national government doesn’t step in.

In addition, the completion of the first desalination plant, at Monwabisi near Khayelitsha, by Proxa Water Solutions has been delayed for a month.

Despite this, the city still plans to get 25% of all its water from desalination by 2020, with billions more rands needed for a long-term plant. Currently, less than 5% of the city’s water comes from the desalination at Strandfontein, near Mitchells Plain, but the city’s target is not unreasonable, according to Xanthea Limberg, the city’s water and waste services mayoral committee member.

Professor Mike Muller of the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of governance said: “If you throw enough money at the problem, you can get what you want. But Capetonians will have to pay and I would be concerned that it will increase water costs dramatically.”

Desalination took up the largest portion of the R1.4-billion budget for the drought relief projects, primarily going to Proxa’s projects at Monwabisi and Strandfontein.

Proxa was also meant to construct a plant at the V&A Waterfront but Nomvula Mokonyane, then the water affairs minister, announced the project would be taken over by the Umgeni Water Board, at a cost of R400-million.

Mokonyane’s announcement, made at the Cape Town Press Club at the end of January, surprised Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, who said it flouted procedure because the city had already designated the site for the Proxa project. Zille has, however, accepted the national government’s intervention.

The city is locked in a billion-rand deal with Proxa for the Monwabisi and Strandfontein plants, which are to each produce seven million litres of water a day.

Proxa was meant to pay penalties because the Monwabisi plant was a month behind schedule, but was exempted after claiming that the residents had held up construction.

“They weren’t directly responsible for that delay; the community blocked them from accessing the site at one point,” Limberg said. “Proxa did make themselves readily available to the community to find a solution and where possible they have tried to accelerate components of construction.”

Now Australian company Fluence Corporation wants to know why the contract for the Cape Town harbour project has been shelved. The two-year contract was expected to cost just under R1-billion.

Fluence Corporation chief executive Henry Charrabé flew to South Africa last week to meet city officials after the company was announced as the lowest bidder for a contract to supply 50-million litres from large containers modified to hold the technology.

Charrabé said the equipment is already in South Africa. “We’ve been announced as the lowest bidder in December already. We’ve been here for a week and trying to reach officials but no one is talking to us. They have just gone silent.”

Limberg said the Cape Town harbour contract was still in the procurement stage and a decision had not yet been made but she did confirm that the money meant for the project had been depleted.

Proxa, which will also operate the Strandfontein and Monwabisi plants, was paid R500-million to build them. The plants will contribute 14-million litres to the 500-million litres that Cape Town uses in a day. It will charge the city close to R500-million a year for this water. The deal runs for two years, after which the plants will be closed down.

Limberg said Cape Town had been left to fund its own desalination plants yet a plant at Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, was built at no cost to the local municipality.

“We have made a request for additional resources but other than R20.8-million from Cogta [the department of co-operative governance and traditional affairs], we’ve received no support.”

She acknowledged the high price of the technology but said “this is the cost of this kind of infrastructure globally and we must obtain this infrastructure at global market rates”.

Limberg said the city is intent on long-term desalination.

“We want to review the long-term approach to desalination by taking on external advice. The World Bank indicated we should be opting for plants [of] no more than 150 megalitres because, beyond that, you need additional marine works,” she said.

“The objective is long-term permanent desalination on a large scale as well as underground water reuse. We’re looking at a long-term target of 25% contribution from desalination,” she added.

The national water strategy states that conventional water treatment uses up to 10 times less electricity than desalination, and warns of the potential negative effects of large-scale plants.

“The sustainability of desalination projects can be advanced if such projects are implemented in a carbon-neutral manner. This can be achieved by developing desalination projects in parallel with nuclear energy and renewable energy projects,” the strategy states.

Muller said: “It is dangerous trying to do big projects like this quickly — not least because it can be very expensive. It would have been best to do cheaper things first, such as groundwater, water reuse and the Voëlvlei expansion [pumping water from the Berg River into the Voëlvlei Dam] in a carefully prepared, sequenced way.”

Muller warned that, in Barcelona, only 10% of a 200-million litre desalination plant has been used since it was unveiled 10 years ago and Australia has had a similar experience. “[Desalination plants] make everyone feel comfortable, but they’ve cost a huge amount of money to build and to maintain — even when they are not producing anything.”

Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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