11 July 2012
A water war is looming in the north of South Africa and coal is right in the middle of it.
That is the conclusion of Yolandi Groenwald in a report commissioned by Greenpeace Africa.
The water footprint of coal power stations is there for all to see, and it is apparent that water might have to be taken away from other users if a crisis such as drought arose to keep the lights on. And it is increasingly becoming clear that agriculture, in the form of irrigation, will bear the brunt of the looming water crisis.
But as Medupi and Kusile both show, there is an even bigger hidden footprint found in the mines that have to supply the coal or sand for the power stations.
With a climate change treaty looming in 2020 that is sure to throttle the coal industry not only in South Africa but around the world, the big question is whether it is wise to allocate precious water resources to an industry that might be out of business by 2050?
Is coal mining a growth and development node?
Is the water pollution and water consumption resulting from coal mining and coal-fired power stations sufficiently factored into economic, environmental and social decision when it comes to growth and development for South Africa.
At the moment, agriculture uses the bulk of South Africa’s water at 62%, mining round about 3%, and Eskom 2% of South Africa’s water.
Eskom is the only ‘strategic’ water user under the National Water Act, which means that the Department of Water Affairs has to provide it with water.
Eskom averages around 316 billion liters of water per annum and the utility requires good quality water.
The utility promises that it is reducing its water footprint. Eskom’s general manager for water and environmental operations Nandha Govender told the media Eskom was producing more electricity using less water, and had taken a “step change” in its water management practices. He said its water usage would peak in 2021, and then start dropping after this date as the new dry-cooled power stations, Medupi and Kusile, came on line and the more water intensive
power stations came to the end of their lifespan. However, Medupi and Kusile will push up Eskom’s water usage considerably in the next decade.
Food or Industry
South Africa stands before a huge political decision on how it will use these dwindling and increasingly expensive water resources in the future.
And it seems the government is leaning politically towards allocating its water to industrial projects that are big money spinners, rather than to farmers.
The vast majority of South Africa’s water rights are found in irrigation, and the food security debate will be at the centre of any decision to relocate rights. Recent reports that the Department of Water Affairs has commissioned, indicate that the South African government is contemplating taking away water rights from farmers and handing them over to industries that can derive ‘maximum benefit’ for the local South African economy
South Africa is projected to experience a 17% gap between water supply and demand by 2030 – a shortfall of 2,7 billion cubic metres – according to the global initiative encouraging big business to report their carbon footprint, the Carbon Disclosure Project. Some of SA’s most economically important catchment areas, including Gauteng province, would be worst affected. Gauteng gets most of its water from the Vaal catchment, the same river that will be supplying Kusile.
South Africa is using too much water for it to be sustainable.
Russell Lamberti, strategist at ETM Analytics told the Bruce Whitfield show on Talk Radio 702 that we are drawing 40% of our annual freshwater resources, the highest in the world.
Johan van Rooyen, director of National Water Resource Planning at South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs says South Africa has enough water if we implement all our infrastructure plans and make the necessary savings. But it is the cost of getting quality water to households, industry and farmers that will make water a scarce and valuable commodity. And more importantly, how that water should be used needs to be taken into account.
At the moment South African households pay more or less between R7 and R12 per kiloliter of water, but economists warned that this could triple if South Africa is to keep its taps flowing.
Van Rooyen’s report for the Department of Water Affairs states that almost all major sources of readily available water have already been harnessed. He says it is absolutely essential that we reduce our water requirements, because our options to source water are becoming more limited and expensive.
The Hidden Cost
But Kusile has an even bigger secret: its unintended threat to wetlands. Most of Kusile’s coal will be sourced from Anglo American’s new mine: the New Largo Colliery, near Kusile.
The Federation of a Sustainable Environment (FSE) is deeply concerned about the impact of this mine on the area’s wetlands, says FSE activist Koos Pretorius. The FSE is questioning the environmental management plan of the mine for failing to consider the impact the mine will have on the wetlands and fresh water in the area. If pans and their associated catchments are not excluded from the mining area they will cease to exist.