Power stations gulp our water

2012-06-23 10:30

Farmers already complain about water shortages in rivers

Medupi power station’s incomplete boilers tower above dry bushveld in Limpopo.

Each day, 17 000 people make their way from nearby Lephalale to work on the country’s newest power station.

The Waterberg region, where Medupi is located is, despite its name, actually water-scarce – water will have to be piped in for Medupi via the Mokolo Crocodile Water Augmentation Project.

The project will only be finished in 2018, just in time for Medupi to come online.

Already, there’s talk in government circles about a third power station in the area that will rely on the same augmentation scheme for its water.

Last month, a World Bank report roasted the South African government for not considering the expansion of the Grootgeluk mine in Medupi’s assessment and the extra water the mine will be using.

Project managers at Medupi were also criticised for not keeping a handle on illegal sand mining.

Susan Goosen is one of the farmers in the area who has been complaining about the loss of water in the river.

She regularly has to deal with water shortages, which she blames on Medupi.

“But the department of mineral resources told us to shut up, because Medupi was in the public interest and the sand and water was needed for the power station,” she said.

Goosen and her community are gearing up for a huge fight for their water – and, water analysts warn, as more communities become aware of the tug of war over water and its rising costs, the conflict will only worsen.

Among the biggest victims of this water war? Agriculture. 

Eskom’s water footprint
Currently, agriculture uses most of South Africa’s water – 62%.

Mining accounts for about 3% of water use, and Eskom uses 2%. South Africa’s state power utility is the only “strategic” water user under the National Water Act. This means the department of water affairs has to provide it with quality water to provide steam for its turbines, to cool and clean machinery and to scrub pollutants.

Eskom vows it is reducing its water footprint. Eskom’s general manager for water and environmental operations, Nandha Govender, told journalists recently that Eskom was producing more electricity using less water, and had taken a “step change” in its water management practices.

He said Eskom’s water usage will peak in 2021 and then start dropping as the new dry-cooled power stations, Medupi and Kusile, come online and more water-intensive power stations come to the end of their lives.
But Johan van Rooyen, director of national water resource planning at South Africa’s department of water affairs, admitted that Medupi and Kusile will still push up Eskom’s water usage considerably in the next decade.

Last April Eskom implemented a water accounting framework at each of its coal-fired plants to support water conservation amid rising criticism about the power stations’ water footprints.

Analysts say, though, that the reports are not detailed enough to show how Eskom accounts for its water usage.

Don’t forget the coal mines
Environmentalists are also wary of coal mines’ hidden water footprints, and question how polluted water resources around these mines really are.

In South Africa, water quality data from individual mine properties is not openly available to the general public, being considered “commercial in confidence”.

This information is collected by mines and is submitted to the water affairs department as part of routine pollution-control-monitoring operations.

Kusile will source its coal from the new Anglo American New Largo mine, but environmentalists are concerned about the mine’s impact on wetlands.

A civic environmental group, the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE), is deeply concerned about the impact of this mine on the area’s wetlands and fresh water, according to FSE activist Koos Pretorius.

Vaal worries
Kusile’s water requirements would have to be fulfilled via the Vaal River Eastern Sub-system Augmentation Project, a project that would transfer 160 million m³ of water from the Vaal Dam to supply mainly Eskom’s and Sasol’s growing water requirements.

But, in Kusile’s environmental impact assessment, it was noted the Vaal water “has a lost opportunity cost attached” to it and the water could have been “beneficially used” elsewhere. Eskom itself is concerned about water supply from the Vaal.

At a water conference in France earlier this year, senior Eskom and Sasol managers warned that one big drought in the Vaal River catchment area over the next eight years could jeopardise the region’s agricultural and industrial output.

They described as a “major risk” the period until 2020, when the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) starts delivering water to the Vaal. Because of Eskom’s strategic use status, other users will have to bear the brunt if a drought comes along.

Govender said a drought would see the region “pushing the boundaries” of available water supply. “The capacity of the Vaal system is a major risk – which lies with large industrial water users, agriculture and the municipalities.”

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