Water Research Commission on importance & cost of water desalination: with Deputy Minister; Committee Report

Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation

05 March 2021
Chairperson: Ms R Semenya (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Portfolio Committee on Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation (the Committee) was briefed in a virtual meeting setting by the Water Research Commission (WRC) on the assessment relating to the importance and cost implication of water desalination as part of future water supply options.

The Committee was alarmed by the revelation that Reverse Osmosis (RO) technology that was developed in South Africa, had been acquired and industrialised by Singapore due to a lack of planning and foresight. South Africa was now paying a premium to use the same technology. Engagements to update the RO technologies for the South African environment were ongoing.

Members heard that the country was in need of foreign investments to build dams and pipelines. Although there was no shortage of foreign investors with idle capital, a favourable policy environment and government guarantees, were requirements for attracting investments. The Committee was informed that these factors should be considered by the relevant role players in government when investment opportunities are pursued.

The Committee was concerned about taps running dry in rural areas. Factors that contributed to dry taps in both rural and urban areas included capital costs and unaccounted for water. Municipalities should not stop using the technology after an improvement in drought conditions as the cost of restarting technology was similar to the cost of commissioning a plant. Leaks represented a significant percentage of unaccounted for water. To improve the supply of water to communities, the integrity of the water system needed to be restored. Desalination must be added to the range of water resource options.

The Committee appreciated the good work of the WRC but held the view that the technical nature of the presentation did not address the lived experiences of their constituencies who were unable to access water. Representatives of the WRC explained the relevance of the information and presented examples of how the technology was being used to process seawater and any contaminated water into drinkable water.

The draft Committee Report on provincial engagements on issues relating to the Water and Sanitation Sector was considered and adopted.

Meeting report

The Chairperson welcomed the invited guests, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Water Research Commission (WRC).

She requested that a moment of silence be observed in support of families who lost loved ones due to Covid-19.

The apology of Mr Trevor Balzer, the Acting Director-General: DWS, was accepted. The Deputy Minister, Mr David Mahlobo (ANC), indicated that he would be joining the Mpumalanga State of the Provinces Address (SOPA) and requested to be excused when the SOPA started.

At this point, the Chairperson experienced connectivity problems. The Deputy Minister requested the leadership of the WRC to proceed with the presentation. He would deliver his remarks after the presentation.     

Overview: Water Resources and Water Resource Management
Mr Dhesigen Naidoo, CEO, WRC, introduced the members of his team and indicated that he would be presenting a broad-based overview while his colleagues would focus on technology and cost factors.

Mr Naidoo said water scarcity was one of the defining factors of the 21st century. He appreciated the fact that the country was experiencing heavy rainfall but warned that dry cycles were becoming more intense. He reminded the members that seasons were more dry than wet.

Significant events that happened on an international level included the meeting with 22 heads of state, on 21 January 2021, where key aspects of water scarcity were discussed. A virtual World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting took place on 26 January 2021 where the issue about a great re-set was discussed. Water is primary to achieving the growth and development targets in terms of the Sustainable Development Goals.

He outlined the three big questions that impacted on water resources and water resource management:

Cost – Most new options in the water domains were associated with one isolated intervention. He compared it to the business of baking bread where the economies of scale would kick in with each additional loaf of bread produced. The cost factor would decrease as more loaves of bread were baked. He explained that costs were understandably high when desalination plants are being built as emergency interventions.

Energy sources – was a fundamental part of the strategy. Switching from coal to renewable energy was an attractive option as it had the potential to accelerate the reduction in costs but it should be used in parallel with other energy sources. In terms of using renewable energy, the CEO: WRC referenced the reduction in costs as reported by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) based in Saudi Arabia. The cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels was down by 82% which was one-tenth of the 2010 price. The cost of solar panels, wind power and offshore energy sources were all down by 40%. Renewable energy had the opportunity of not becoming the elephant in the room.

Capacity – to run new systems required a re-orientation of existing capacity. Although it was not difficult to do, re-orientation required technical skills. In general, South Africa was short of capacity. 

Desalination Strategy
Mr Jay Bhagwan, Executive Manager: Water Use and Wastewater Management, WRC, said South Africa had a desalination strategy. The industrialisation of desalination was being considered in terms of the strategy. South Africans were once considered to be leaders in the field of desalination. It was unfortunate that there was no plan at the national platform to commercialise the technology. A huge economic opportunity was lost.  

Desalination Technologies and Costs Implications
Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, Research Manager: Water Quality and Water Treatment, WRC, confirmed that the country had a national desalination strategy. A desalination scheme had a unique profile in terms of the capital-intensive nature of the projects, challenges caused by the construction of plants and the demand for clean water. The risks associated with desalination had a significant bearing on the overall costs of the scheme. All funding models needed to be considered if the country had the intent to move from a capacity of 0.5% to 5% or more. The WRC had done some background work, as early as 2006, to develop guidelines for municipal engineers. Technology selection was a key factor in determining the costs of desalination. The energy requirement and the suitable technology required to produce quality water had been investigated by the CEO: WRC.

The shift from reverse osmosis (RO) to other options would be guided by the energy mix. In terms of the installation capacity of desalination plants, the water stress index of South Africa could be compared to most typical Middle Eastern countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, made the switch to RO and rely mostly on RO technologies for desalination. South Africa had the experience of operating small scale desalination plants, Mossel Bay was cited as the biggest plant.

Compared to other options, desalination was the most expensive but it was also the option with the highest assurance of water supply. It was therefore a choice between assurance versus costs. Most desalination plants in South Africa were constructed as emergency projects. The costs of upscaling, depending on the size of the desalination plant, ranged from between R20 and R50 million. The Mossel Bay plant was constructed in alliance with the private sector. The future of desalination in South Africa involved upscaling of existing plants. Cooperation between contractors and municipalities must be as seamless as possible Implementation was flagged as one of the risks as delays lead to increased costs. In the current model, energy costs represented 50% of operating costs. A smaller desalination plant in the Western Cape was operating on solar energy. The plant was being used as a case study for learning purposes

Energy alternatives were being explored and included the use of thermal processes in situations where co-generation of energy and water could be affected to save costs based on shared infrastructure. The eThekwini Remix demo plant is an example of Africa’s first energy-saving desalination plant where a mix of the desalination and water re-use options were applied. A saving of 30% less energy than conventional desalination was observed. The mobile package desalination plants in Richards Bay were commissioned in 2017. The plants were costlier and not easy to operate. Co-location next to the Koeberg nuclear power station served as an example for larger scale desalination plants.

Mr Naidoo stated that technologies had improved and investor appetite globally had also changed. There was a huge attraction to embrace local projects but the notion of water scarcity had been identified as the biggest threat in the 2020/21 risk register.

Mr M Tseki (ANC) requested the WRC team to kindly explain the meaning of desalination and RO in laypersons terms (take members to class zero). He asked whether the desalination process was mostly dependent on electricity and wanted to know whether an engineer, whom he once engaged on the matter, was correct when he said seawater and underground water would never run dry.  

Ms G Tseke (ANC) said water was a scarce resource and requested the Commission to educate our people to save water. She asked whether the current model of desalination plants with the associated cost implications could be sustained in areas where it had been initiated. She requested detail of the consideration to treat acid mine drainage (AMD) and suggested that re-used water was a much cheaper option.

Ms S Mokgotho (EFF) asked what the solutions were to address the number of technical challenges and what the ethical challenge of desalination was.

Ms C Seoposengwe (ANC) stated that the Northern Cape was a semi-desert province but it had sea and solar energy farms. She asked what the advantage versus the budget was for the province in terms of the availability of both options. She enquired whether the WRC had done an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages per province.

Ms N Sihlwayi (ANC) was pleased to finally hear about desalination plants. She asked how many desalination plants South Africa had and requested feedback on the performance of the plants. 

Mr Bhagwan explained that the aim of desalination is to produce drinkable water. The RO process is similar to the manner in which the kidney functions. It involved a membrane with fine pores which does not allow water to pass through. A significant amount of energy is needed to force water through the membrane. The pressure of the energy allows the water to pass through and as a result, the salt is separated from the seawater and fresh water is generated. The costs to separate water from highly concentrated salt (brine) is high. In the Gulf States, where the brine was being pumped back into the sea, it had the effect of causing the death of marine animals in nearby areas.

The Executive Manager: Water Use and Wastewater Management WRC, explained that the costs of desalination in the Northern Cape would become viable if there was a constant supply of water. However, it was a difficult model to maintain if water supply was infrequent. The costs would even be higher if, for example, water produced on the coast was pumped to Johannesburg.

Dr Nonhlanhla Kalebaila, Research Manager: Water Quality and Water Treatment WRC, explained that desalination involved two processes. Firstly, taking seawater and turn it into a drinkable standard. Secondly, turning any contaminated or brackish water into a drinkable standard. Responding to the Northern Cape query, she said costs for inland municipalities would be high but the province had the advantage of enough sunlight and the benefits associated with solar capacity.

Dr Kalebaila said the lifespan of a membrane is prolonged through pre-treatment. Water is pre-filtered to avoid the weakening of the membrane. She stated that South Africa was moving towards the re-use of water option. The country had up to ten desalination plants. Mossel Bay had the highest capacity followed by the Albany Coast plant. The problem of ethics in desalination revolve around the cost factor as desalination was a capital-intensive process. Contractors must be prudent on the issue of capital costs and stick to deadlines in order to deliver water that is affordable and that would address the dire need of communities.

Mr Naidoo said there was very little chance of seawater running dry in the current projection. It would always be there for the foreseeable future. This was however not the case with groundwater as aquifers, which are effective storage mechanisms, were being over exploited. It needed to be constantly maintained. In terms of solar energy, he explained that localised energy supply was a very attractive option but it must make economic sense. Desalination should become a permanent cost. The existing plants were built on the back of emergencies which caused an escalation in the costs. He agreed that it would be a good exercise to compile a risk map to show the energy proximity and possibilities per province. Responding to the question about the re-use of water, he said that South Africans were not taking advantage of things we do well. To illustrate this point, he presented a bottle of fully drinkable re-used water that was processed at the Beaufort-West plant, which was the first such plant in the world and which, according to him, needed to be upscaled. In response to the issue of ethics, he said it related to where water was sourced and to make sure that water was processed in a smart way. In conclusion, he said the Albany Coast plant was an example of a successful desalination plant where sand-water extraction was used..

Mr M Tseki (ANC) wanted to know at what cost the technology, that had originally been developed in South Africa, was being sourced from Singapore. He regretted that the country had lost the ability to commercialise the technology.

Mr L Basson (DA) disagreed with Mr Naidoo that the opportunity to re-use water was being missed. In terms of the Green Drop report, wastewater that could be re-used in the Northern Cape was being discarded on a daily basis. He asked whether the new technology to harness sea wave energy was being considered as a possible option to bring down costs in areas that did not have an abundance of sunlight.

Ms Mokgotho asked whether the Committee could be given examples of countries that were interested in investing in South Africa.

Ms N Tafeni (EFF) expressed her dissatisfaction with the presentation as it was not assisting with the issue of taps running dry in rural areas. She asked what the plan was to address the problem of water not coming from taps.

Ms Deborah Mochotlhi, Acting Director-General: Institutional Oversight, DWS, said she was not aware of the issue of buying back technology from Singapore. Her understanding of Ms Tafeni’s concern was that the presentation was dealing with highly technical technology which did not speak to the real day-to-day issues of people who did not have water. The presentation dealt with costs and technology that could not be used in all areas. In areas where it was being used, municipalities would stop the use of technology as soon as the drought gets alleviated. The cost of restarting a plant, after not using it for some time, was just as high as commissioning the plant.

Ms Mochotlhi said the issue of RO could be re-looked at in terms of groundwater, especially in remote areas. The funding model that was suitable for areas where people were able to pay, was presented in a meeting with the JSC. However, in terms of StatsSA reporting, the number of unserved households was increasing. She was concerned about the inability to assist people, who were using the same source of water as animals, in circumstances where the fiscus was constrained. In summary, the information in the presentation was pitched at a level that could not be used in areas where communities did not have access to water.

Mr Naidoo said the list of RO technologies was quite long. The dominant technique, referred to as the gold standard, was developed in South Africa but industrialised in Singapore. He confirmed that South Africa was paying a premium to use the technology and that engagements to update RO technologies were ongoing. He warned that South Africa should be careful not to lose other technologies. He agreed with Mr Basson that the re-use option must become a regular practice. To illustrate how it was being done in other countries, he referred to a European city that was extracting water from the German part of the Rhine River. The particular city is required to demonstrate that the water was used at least five times before releasing it back into the river. A fine is levied if the city was unable to prove that the water was re-used multiple times.

Mr Naidoo stated that the Commission was in its 50th year. The plant in Simonstown Bay was a demonstration of 50 years of experience in water re-use. Many countries around the world had idle capital and were looking for investments. The problem was that they get stuck on the issue of revenue and the ability to repay. Investors require a particular policy environment and need government guarantees to secure payment. To get foreign investments for the building of dams and pipelines, the country needed to up its game.

In addition to capital costs, unaccounted for water was another contributing factor to taps running dry in both rural and urban areas. At the last count, 36% of water was unaccounted for. Leaks represented 25% of the 36% and the number of leaks were rising. The integrity of the water system needed to be restored. Desalination on its own was not a magic bullet but must be added to the array of options. In terms of SDG targets, not a single person should not have access to clean drinking water by 2030. The WRC should take advantage of technology to develop and export new technologies to our brothers on the African continent.

Ms Tseke requested the presenters to guard against using acronyms in future, for the benefit of members.

Ms Sihlwayi asked for information about the desalination project in the Eastern Cape.

Ms Mochotlhi said Mr Naidoo was best placed to respond to the question.

Mr Naidoo said the plant in Eastern Cape is referred to as the Albany Coast plant located in Alexandria. The plant was the predominant mechanism in that municipality and proved to be very effective. It represented a very good model that could be replicated along the coast in other areas, including in Sedgefield, but the economies of scale was an issue.

Deputy Minister Mahlobo thanked the leadership of the Committee for allowing the WRC to report on the important work that the Commission was doing. The main issue was the selfless safeguarding of South African Intellectual Property (IP) rights. Our people are one of the most important treasures of our country. As stated in the National Development Plan, the country should increase the research and development capacity, not only in the fields of space and water.

Deputy Minister Mahlobo said a lot of work had been done on the issue of RO dealing with the ability to extract objects from water. The problem was that South Africans were not supporting the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the WRC to commercialise the products. Technology imported from outside the country needed to be modified as conditions in South Africa were different from, for example, from conditions in Siberia.

The emphasis on the IP conundrum, according to the Deputy Minister, was that the technology should not have been lost. However, cost drivers remained an issue irrespective of the technologies being used. Although desalination and nuclear projects need a lot of money to fund the capital expenditure, the issue of costs should not be used as a scarecrow. Other industries get created around the cities and might lead to the construction of new towns and cities. It was a question of affordability, management and maintenance. The Richards Bay plant, that produced good quality water, served as an example of a desalination plant in a coastal area that could assist in the development of communities.

Addressing the issue of water re-use, recycling and treatment, the Deputy Minister said people in Gauteng did not need another dam but could use the wastewater from the integrated Vaal River system, surrounding other provinces and countries. Certain areas were well developed in the mixing of water resources. Wastewater in the Northern Cape was coming from sources in Gauteng. The wastewater plant in Diepsloot in Johannesburg was designed to operate at a capacity of 450 megalitres but was operating at 401 megalitres while 300 megalitres go to the Hartebees dam. South Africa was not going to run out of water but the water must be fit for use. The groundwater option must be an alternative for addressing water scarcity in rural areas where the infrastructure to build dams, was lacking. Researchers must be supported in their efforts to make sea-, rain-, ground- as well as wastewater fit for use. Water would be an important factor if South Africa were going to become a construction site. The possibility of using gas to power diesel plant at coastal cities was being discussed with officials from Environmental Departments. He acknowledged that members were speaking from lived experiences when they raise issues that affect their constituencies.

Ms N Mvana (ANC) asked why Makhanda, which was near Alexandria, could not be assisted if the desalination project in Alexandria was working well.

The Deputy Minister asked that the Department be allowed to provide a detailed response to Ms Mvana’s question about assistance offered to struggling communities in Makhanda. 

The Chairperson thanked the WRC team for the important briefing and said the WRC was an important stakeholder in the Water Sector. The Committee would continuously extend an invitation if the need arose. After releasing the officials, she announced a five-minute break. The break was followed by a discussion to adopt the report on provincial engagements concerning specific issues relating to the Water and Sanitation Sector.

Committee Report on engagements with provinces and the water boards on issues of water and sanitation
The Chairperson said the report was based on the presentations of provinces and the water boards. Content Advisors were requested to develop a consolidated report as a lot of the issues were similar in nature. The idea was to deal with a consolidated report instead of isolated issues recorded in the minutes of meetings.

Ms Shereen Dawood, Committee Content Advisor,, read the relevant sections of the report, including the Background, Introduction, Observations and Recommendations into the record.

The Chairperson indicated that the report was a consolidation of engagements with provinces and the water boards on issues of water and sanitation. The Committee was anticipating the consolidated report on Human Settlements. It was not possible to deal with both reports at the same time, due to time constraints. She invited members to interact with the content of the report as was presented so that issues raised, could be followed up.

Ms Tseke appreciated the work done by the drafters of the report as well as the contribution made by the staff of the office of the Chairperson and the Chairperson herself. The report was very comprehensive. She requested that the Magalies Water Board issues be captured as it was missing from the report.

The report was adopted with the amendment of the Magalies Water Board issue. The EFF abstained.

Ms Tseke commented that it was a good report and that Ms Mokgotho had been wrongly influenced to abstain.

Ms Mvana requested that the minutes also be adopted.

At this point, the connection with the Chairperson was lost and Ms Tseke was appointed as Acting Chairperson. While in the process of considering the minutes dated 13 October 2020, the Chairperson reconnected and advised the members that section nine of the minutes, dealing with resolutions, needed to be removed as the resolutions had been captured in the consolidated report.

Ms Tseke, in the capacity as Acting Chairperson, moved to consider the minutes dated 16 October 2020.

The Chairperson intervened and said there was no need to adopt minutes separately as the minutes had been consolidated in the report, which had already been adopted. She requested that the minutes be attached to the report.

Ms Mohlala voiced her objection and disagreed with the minutes. She said the comments of other parties were not reflected in the minutes. She appealed for the drafting of thorough minutes that not only reflected what the ANC wanted to hear. Until this issue of partiality was corrected, the EFF would abstain.

The Chairperson said observations were recorded in terms of the substance of issues and that names were not indicated.

Ms Mohlala replied that the minutes favoured the majority party and not what really transpired in meetings.

The meeting was adjourned.


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