Clean water has hefty price

2012-03-31 12:32

Acid mine drainage (AMD), Gauteng’s ticking time bomb, can be solved – but it is likely to cost taxpayers billions of rands over the next decade.

At the moment the bill for a quick fix runs to more than R900 million. But that short-term solution only removes the heavy metals from the water using three treatment plants to be built this year.

Water polluted with sulphates will still be released into the Vaal water system until at least 2014, before it becomes an environmental liability.

That’s when an even greater ­expense kicks in: taking the sulphates and salts out of the water. The desalination of the water, the only feasible long-term solution for AMD, is likely to run into billions of rands.

A leaked document from the department of water affairs that emerged last month put the cost of the desalination plants at more than R3 billion.

A R17 million feasibility study for this long-term plan started this month and Minister of Water Affairs Edna Molewa will receive a report back in a year’s time.

So where will the billions come from to deal with what scientists have described as South Africa’s water Chernobyl? So far, Treasury has committed R433 million, but there is a R400 million shortfall.

“Treasury is sympathetic to us,” Molewa said. “They already bumped up the funding with more than R200 million to what they ­initially promised.”

Sources in the Treasury suggest it is likely to allocate more funds once the long-term plan feasibility study is finished. The long-term plan will involve selecting a technology company to do the desalination.

Part of the solution is to sell the cleaned water back to Rand ­Water to recover some of the costs.

That was the original plan of the Western Utilities Corporation (WUC), a company founded by mines to commercialise the ­cleaning of the AMD, but the ­department of water affairs rejected the mines’ controversial proposal.

Water political analyst Anthony Turton was very critical of the WUC, saying it had the potential to be another arms deal and that it would give the mines the opportunity to escape their AMD liability.

There were also concerns about the privatisation of water, but ­supporters of the scheme said it could have solved AMD without having to use any taxpayers’ money.

Federation for a Sustainable Environment chief executive Mariette Lieferink said politics were at play in a big way.

“But investors are not going to put money into something that does not yield dividends. You need commercial interests to make the solution work.”

Turton said there was a ­misconception that millions could be made from AMD.

“There is no money to be made, the volumes are too small,” he said. “It will be difficult to make it sexy for investors.”

There is also a debate whether the water should be cleaned to drinking water level, or whether it could be used for agriculture or even for mines. This would reduce the costs.

Molewa can’t ascertain where money will come from to fund the water clean-up but insists that a public-private partnership will have to be found.

“I have instructed my department to explore the possibility of testing the open market asking for interest to deal with acid mine drainage,” Molewa said.

The R900 million will only fund the three treatment plants – at the western, central and eastern ­basins – this year.

Acidity and heavy metals, including iron, manganese and uranium, will be removed, but sulphates will be left in the treated water.

The sulphated water will be discharged in the Tweelopie, Elsburg and Blesbok spruits. It will start to make its way to the Vaal ­system when the central basin starts to decant in July 2014.

Marius Keet, water affairs’ water quality control deputy director-general, said: “The Vaal system can tolerate our measures till 2014, then we have to start taking the salinity out.”

This is not good enough, environmental groups have warned. Lieferink said the sulphated water would have a devastating effect on the ecology and agricultural potential of the land.

But Keet believed Gauteng was safe for now. “The sulphated water is not great for the environment, but it won’t kill anyone – only cause ­diarrhoea.”

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