South Africa’s most important water stakeholders have a prime opportunity to respond. Uniting governments, companies, and non-profit organizations can help protect water resources while stabilizing energy supplies – and eventually, reduce South Africa’s dependence on coal.
The Company Experience: Mitigating Risk
Sasol, a large South African energy and chemical company, has adopted a forward-looking philosophy. The company thinks of itself as a water planner rather than an energy planner.
Sasol’s business depends on large volumes of water. The South African government allocates 150m cubic meters of water to the company every year, 120m of which comes from the Vaal river system. It uses that for washing, extraction, and cooling during the production process.
To mitigate its long-term, water-related risks, Sasol is investing in water recycling, wastewater treatment, and alternative supplies, such as through desalination. The company also invests in water conservation projects outside its operations. One project fixed leaky taps and toilets for 114,000 houses in the Vaal river basin township of Emfuleni, and claims to have saved 4.6m cubic meters of water since 2012. Sasol realises that improving water efficiency for the municipality improves water security for the company and the community at large.
The Government and NGO Experience: Dealing with Acid Mine Drainage
South Africa’s coal-energy producers and regulators must also contend with a major water quality concern: acid mine drainage. After a coal mine is abandoned, it often leaches highly acidic water, which then flows into surrounding ecosystems.
To date, more than 6,000 mines have been abandoned in South Africa, with damages from acidic water requiring an estimated 30 billion rand ($2.67 billion) in clean-up costs nationwide, according to a WWF report. Marius Keet, from South Africa’s water and sanitation department has said that acid mine drainage is South Africa’s greatest environmental challenge, while acknowledging that coal will remain a major growth driver for South Africa’s developing economy.
The best course of action, according to the WWF’s Christine Colvin, is long–term planning. She recommends banning mining activities in the Vaal river basin’s water source areas – lands at high elevation that collect rainfall and feed the rest of the river system. Areas with existing mining operations should be restored to a more natural state through interventions including water and soil treatment and replanting. Mined areas should then be improved further, Colvin argues, to compensate for acid-drainage related damages.
From a government perspective, Keet recommends a series of solutions to deal with the acid mine issue. South Africa’s presidential cabinet has already approved a series of short and medium-term preventative measures, including improved water-flow management in and out of abandoned mines, treatment and water quality improvements, and more monitoring and research.
Different parts of the Vaal river basin will require different local-level interventions—enlarging water treatment plants, installing new technology, and expanding existing water infrastructure such as pipelines and pumping stations.
In cases where mines are already abandoned, Keet recommends that polluters be pushed to pay clean-up costs rather than the government, although he admits it can be difficult to track companies who have gone bankrupt and severed ties with specific mining sites.
South Africa is hardly alone in its coal-fired energy and water challenges. China, Mongolia, and other countries across Asia face similarly acute issues. The United States and India face challenges of their own. While solutions will always have to be locally grounded, South Africa can act as a reference case for tangible steps forward toward securing energy supplies while protecting water resources.