The water crisis in South Africa is in full swing since my last opinion piece earlier this year with over thirty South Africans losing their lives to cholera and the city of Johannesburg experiences daily water shedding for the past few years and this month an entire week with major outages also now continuous in the two neighbouring metros of Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. This is on the back of full dams country wide, except for the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality, and we still cannot provide water to our cities. There are still some in the water sector debating whether we are in a crisis or not, what must happen for it to sink in? We need to understand the state of decay in our water sector to have any hope of working ourselves out of the water crisis that is far more complex and difficult to get out of than the energy one destroying our daily lives for over a decade now. I write these opinion pieces with the clear intention of sharing my views so that we can increase the dialogue and get going on redressing our water woes and rebuilding our country.

Many ask me how we got here, and, in this edition, I would like to share some of my understanding of this issue that starts as a good news story until three two decades ago. Whilst I may not see the turnaround in my lifetime, I sincerely hope that our previous success stories will be used and leveraged as our water history is rich and has many lessons that we can take advantage of.

With the discovery of gold in South Africa late in the 1900th century in what was then the Transvaal, so central inland region of South Africa, significant population increases, and industrialisation required considerable amounts of water to drive this all with a region sitting on a watershed with no large water sources. The Vaal Dam was constructed between the two world wars after its predecessor the Vaal Barrage that was completed in 1923. This was initially for the miners and is now replenished additionally from the Tugela River in the KwaZulu Natal province in an inter-basin transfer via the Sterkfontein Dam, built in 1980 and at an altitude of 1,7km’s.

The Integrated Vaal River System, IVRS, now has fourteen dams and is the largest water catchment system in the country and supplies nearly half of the economy’s water. Water is also pumped uphill from the Vaal River system to the petrochemical complex in Secunda and also feeds the coal fired power stations in the Mpumalanga province. Lesotho also feeds through an inter-basin transfer system water to the Vaal catchment system where the second phase is in the construction phase scheduled for completion around 2028, some ten years late. These mega projects catalysed by the discovery of gold in South Africa were at the time of construction by far the largest inter-basin transfer systems globally, now supporting some thirty million citizens, only to be eclipse two decades ago by the South-North Water Transfer Project, SNWT, in China supporting one hundred and twenty million citizens, so, four time the IVRS. South Africa remains in the top ten globally with the number of significant dams it has. Without these dams the region would not have been able to industrialise and provide the vast rail, water, roads, electricity, mining mineral beneficiation and remains the commercial capital of the continent.

The diamond mines in the Northern Cape were also established late in the 19th century and eventually the mines, industry and human settlements required additional water that was available from aquifers but rather salty. The development of Sasol, new Gold Fields in the Orange Free State and large-scale Eskom coal fired power stations required the use and reuse of water where salts had to be continuously removed and desalination membranes were a key component requiring developing in a very harsh sanctions era. South Africa started developing brackish water desalination using electrodialysis in 1953 that was commissioned in 1959 that became the largest in the world at the time placing South Africa clearly at the forefront of the global desalination movement using membranes. Reverse Osmosis membrane developments continued in the decades to follow with the subsequent establishment of Debex Desalination and Membratek that were subsequently absorbed into the Veolia international organisation that today boasts one of the largest fleets of desalination plants where it claims to have supplied around 1 950 of the estimated 21 000 already in operation. The origins of this substantial fleet of desal plants can also be traced back to South Africa in its heyday.

Another success story was the pioneering development and patenting of 16-inch Reverse Osmosis membranes in South Africa in the 1990’s that is now widely used globally. The driver for these larger membranes was to reduce energy requirements whilst improving on flux rates and decreasing fouling rates.

South Africa currently has in excess of 1 000 sewage treatment plants excluding the numerous package plants that were largely designed, constructed and commissioned between the 1960 to 1990 era. The “godfather” of biological nutrient removal developed in South Africa in the 1970’s is Doctor James Barnard reinforcing the strong intellectual property development in South Africa in sewage treatment. In the 1990’s Israel decided to embark on the construction of advanced sewage treatment systems to alleviate the pollution of their water resources due to inadequate sewage treatment and a South African consortium was awarded the design, construction, and operations for a large fleet of medium sized sewage plants in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. This high-quality treated sewage effluent was then used to irrigate key crops in Israel to further its food security and enhance the environmental issues, another proudly South African achievement.

The very famous and world first direct reuse reclamation plant was designed in South Africa and implemented in Windhoek in the 1960’s providing the desert city with around a third of its potable water demand that is still in operation today after several upgrades to include the latest water treatment technologies such as ultra filtration. This technology has set the benchmark for global reuse plants, notably Singapore that reuses mostly its sewage for industrial uses although the reclaimed water is of the best potable standard. The towns of Beaufort West and Ballito both have direct reuse systems designed and constructed in South Africa and now operating for over a decade. The city of Cape Town is designing a large-scale reuse plant that will be fed from the recently upgraded Zandvliet sewage works that produce a consistently high-quality effluent fir for further reclamation processes. This reused effluent will be blended with 80% dam water and processed for a third time in the Faure Water Treatment Plant.

Today, in absolute contrast to our water pedigree, we have 97% of the South African sewage plants not complying to Green Drop standards with poor governance and the collapse of many of these systems all under local government mandates. Very few new sewage plants have been designed and constructed for the past three decades although the population has grown from 40 million to 60 million and rapid urbanisation requiring major capacity and technology upgrades. The volume of treated and untreated sewage has increased by more than 50% with a receiving environment inland with roughly the same water reserve, so nutrients are destroying our potable and irrigation water resource. The latest advanced treatment technologies are required to effectively treat our sewage to far more stringent qualities to protect our water reserves and resources.

We had the capability and capacity to lead the world in many water related aspects and have to regain this ability to rebuild our water cycle before it collapses everything around us and results in increased misery of the poor and unemployed ranks increasing daily. There is an ideal opportunity to reindustrialise South Africa on the back of a water rejuvenation master plan, let’s do it as no one else will.

By admin

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