/ 16 May 2020

Kicking coal can improve our water supply to all

At the coalface: Eskom’s Grootvlei power station. South32
At the coalface: Eskom’s Grootvlei power station. South32, together with Exxaro, supplies more than 70% of Eskom’s coal. (Dean Hutton/Bloomberg/Getty Images)


To address South Africa’s water crisis we must overhaul our non-inclusive systems of water access. That includes kicking our addiction to water-hungry, climate-change-causing coal.  

Organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, are recommending frequent handwashing to prevent an uncontrollable outbreak of Covid-19. For many, however, such recommendations have been difficult if not impossible to follow given our uneven distribution of piped water, with an estimated 54% of South Africans without access to water in their homes.  

Adding insult to injury, earlier this year, the government once again declared South Africa’s drought a national emergency. That emergency is playing out against an unequal backdrop where communities have long been overlooked by the government, particularly the 33% of South Africans living in rural areas. 

Cape Town’s recent drought received a lot of media attention. Meanwhile, the brutal reality of drought has been playing out much more severely in less wealthy, less white provinces such as the Eastern and Northern Cape. In Makhanda, drought, mismanagement and inequality are combining into a perfect storm of water inaccess, where handwashing becomes near impossible for those facing extreme water cuts.   

Those with the least access to basic needs such as water have felt the most dramatic effects of the country’s almost six-week lockdown. The pandemic is exposing cracks in government leadership which failed to provide universal access to clean water and invest adequately in infrastructure. 

As Amnesty International’s Right to Water campaign puts it, decades “of corruption and the mismanagement of public funds has weakened the department of water and sanitation’s ability to deliver access to safe and reliable water”. Although the situation is dire, the needed recovery from Covid-19’s impacts provides a crucial opportunity for the ANC-led government to build a better future with dignity and justice for all. 

To ensure a just recovery, the government could lead a major investment and public works programme to build infrastructure the country so desperately needs when it comes to water, energy and a host of other basic services — what other countries might call a Green New Deal and we’re referring to as a “just recovery”. Such a programme could put people back to work in building a more socially and ecologically just South Africa. 

Addressing the inefficient use of water and acting on climate change are also important steps towards limiting droughts and managing the country’s water crisis towards sustainability and resilience. According to the Life After Coal coalition, South Africa’s dependence on mining coal and burning it in power stations uses 5% of our water and pollutes even more. South Africa is already one of the world’s most water-stressed countries. We cannot afford to deepen that scarcity by continuing our addiction to coal, which accounts for almost 90% of electricity generation. 

Fortunately, studies show that if we transition to a 100% renewable energy system we could save about 196-billion litres of water a year.  With average residential consumption in South Africa being about 40 000 litres a year, coming off coal could save enough water to provide 4.8-million people with water. We would also save even more water because of reduced pollution.

There are much broader benefits to renewable energy too, with such a transition providing an additional 200 000 jobs by 2030 compared to sticking with coal, and an additional 1-million by 2050, according to research from the University of Cape Town. Also, because renewables are South Africa’s cheapest source of new energy by far, such a transition could cut our energy costs by a quarter — a welcome relief from Eskom’s continuous price hikes.  

Sticking to the country’s coal habit will continue to threaten the scarce supply of water to communities. It will also have devastating effects for those on the frontlines of our interrelated crises of wealth inequality and ecological degradation. If we want a future where all people can wash their hands and have decent access to water, then we desperately need to ditch coal and implement transformation.