Water Research Commission: briefing

Science and Technology

13 June 2006
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Meeting Summary

A summary of this committee meeting is not yet available.

Meeting report


13 June 2006

: Mr E Ngcobo (ANC)

Documents handed out
Water-Centred Knowledge: The Role of the Water Research Commission [please email access@pmg.org.za for downloading problems]
Water Centred Knowledge: Improving the quality of lives of South Africans

While the Water Research Commission worked closely with the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry this meeting was its first interaction with the Committee. The Committee was briefed on the Commission’s activities and its role in water management and was also given a brief summary of some of the Commission’s projects. Members raised questions related to a number of areas ranging from seawater harvesting and desalination to ecological sanitation and mine water pollution.

Water Research Commission (WRC) Presentation

Dr Rivka Kfir, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), briefed the Committee on the Commission’s activities. The Commission focused on developing and sharing knowledge around water in order to build greater capacity in terms of water management services. Its five key strategic areas included water resource management, water-linked ecosystems, water use and waste management, water utilization in agriculture and water-centred knowledge.

Dr Kevin Pietersen, the Commission’s Director of Research Coordination and Partnerships, presented a summary of some of the Commission’s research projects including research into solar distillation, rainwater harvesting, mine water pollution, ecological sanitation, climate change and the controversial precipitation research and rainfall enhancement programme. These projects addressed issues relating to the role of water in health, commercial, environmental, economic and social issues.


The Chairperson thanked the presenters for their enlightening and interesting presentation. He had not been aware that so much research was being done on water. He himself had done some water chemistry during his nuclear studies. It was important to understand the water and the air around nuclear power plants.

Ms Kfir said that the WRC too did some research around water and nuclear energy.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) commented that people often took water for granted until their water supply was cut off. He agreed that the presentation was useful and interesting. The presentation included a map showing the various regions into which water was running. He wondered how practical it was to harvest water from the sea. He asked if the WRC could expand on how feasible desalination was as well as on whether other countries already did some work in this area.

Dr Kfir said while the technology was available, the main challenge as far as desalination and harvesting water from the sea was concerned related to the cost of such an exercise. Technology was advanced and cost was decreasing. Singapore, which was a very small nation and was an emerging economy, launched the New Water plant where they desalinated seawater and reused wastewater at the same time. They now no longer needed to buy water from Malaysia. Of course rich countries of the gulf region had been doing it for many years.

While South Africa practiced some form of desalination and did a lot of indirect re-use because it had a lot of brackish water, desalination remained a costly exercise. South Africa has however the technology and has discussed the feasibility of desalination. The City of Cape Town had requested studies into the feasibility of desalination during the heavy drought and water crisis it experienced recently.

Dr Kfir added that harvesting seawater would change the whole ocean as well as water resource management since water would then no longer be a scarce resource. Globally it was believed that this scenario was far fetched because it was not yet economically feasible.

Mr Ainslie noted that much water went to waste during heavy down pours. This water ran from the gutters to storm water drains and from there into the sea. Millions of gallons of this precious commodity went to waste in this manner. He wondered why especially in bigger cities storm water could not be run off into underground reservoirs.

Mr S Dithebe (ANC) found the developments in rainwater harvesting fascinating and thought that the WRC should educate communities in settlements and townships around this practice. In rural as well as townships people should be taught how to use rainwater for their gardens, which would contribute to food security.

As far as rainwater harvesting was concerned Dr Kfir commented on South Africa’s interesting history on its floor reduction policy. Some rainwater harvesting has been done in recent years, which influenced the Department of Water Affairs to consider its environmental implications. Preventing rain from running into rivers or into the sea stopped its flow. The floor reduction policy was necessary because one would not have a live river if water did not flow into it. She cautioned that one needed to understand large-scale rainwater harvesting and carefully consider the implications of blocking the flow of rainwater into rivers and the sea.

The WRC had, for many years, been practicing (although not formally) small-scale water harvesting in the form of agricultural dams on many farms throughout South Africa e.g. in the Limpopo province and Gauteng. Small-scale farming had however not been developed around these dams. The WRC was trying to develop it at local level so that communities would benefit from it.

Dr Kfir informed Members that many years ago the WRC researched rainwater harvesting from rooftops. The material roofs were made of and the fact that first rain was generally very dirty posed challenges. Storm water too was not always very clean – her research had indicated that sometimes storm water, which flowed through an area and cleaned it, was worse than treated sewage. The quality of storm water was also influenced by the quality of the first rain.

She explained that one managed storm water, got intelligent roofs that would wash away the first flow and educated people that very good sources of water could be created. Except in the very few areas with the potential for acid rain, the quality of rainwater was generally very high. She said that through research, education and harnessing the Department of Water Affairs more could be done in the area of rainwater harvesting that would result in it being used as a source of water.

The WRC was of the opinion that it would be possible to harvest storm water for irrigation. It would however require a different type of city management. The city of Ethekweni carefully considered water and its management of water and had an urban management cycle of water utilizing grey as well as storm water.

Mr Ainslie commented that the WRC did much research and were involved in various projects e.g. solar energy, rainwater harvesting but experienced much difficulty as far as rolling these projects out to communities was concerned. This was a problem across various entities that fall under the Department of Trade and Industry. Amazing research was done but the Department could not necessarily roll development out to the wider community. If this was not happening then people were merely doing research for the sake of research. He requested the presenters to explain what the difficulties were and what the WRC was doing to ensure that projects were rolled out.

Dr Kfir said that the WRC was very proud of its success in this regard. She said that the Commission’ success could be ascribed to the applied nature of their research and that it had a good relationship with its stakeholders. She assured the Committee that much WRC funded research was being used. It gave support to the Department of Water Affairs - many policy decisions were based on information received from and research done by the Commission. The Commission formed the research-arm for policymaking and its role in building the current water strategy and the whole notion of integrated water resource management was critical.

Dr Kfir had been involved in water quality research for many years. Initially there had been little or no interest in the research she had proposed into water quality but eventually her research was funded. Currently Rand Water, Umgeni and other water utilities throughout the country did routine tests. This proved that the technology and knowledge emanating from research was being utilised.

The solar steel featured in the presentation was being transferred to the municipalities. Petroplants were situated across the country and was licensed to South Africa free of charge despite the fact that it has been patented.

The application of what the WRC did could be seen in some communities. She agreed however that the Commission could definitely improve on the application and dissemination of its research. This was very important. People needed to be educated around the importance of water – this knowledge was not only important for the decision makers but also for communities.

Dr Pietersen added that the transfer of research knowledge from a rural application to a peri-urban application also played a role. Research into how to facilitate this was on-going. The peri-urban process introduced a whole host of new dynamics that complicated the matter. A lot of research was being done in other countries too. There were also initiatives that tried to initiate these activities especially as far as small-scale gardens were concerned.

Dr Kfir said that multi-use was another project that focused on the use of grey water. Bath water could be used in irrigation for example. The WRC had projects in which they used this kind of grey water and rainwater to irrigate small gardens. The project was very successful. She told of a woman in the Limpopo who along with other women were very successfully using this method in their commercial vegetable gardens.

Mr Ainslie wondered whether given industrialisation, etc the quality of rainwater has changed over time. He asked whether the presenters could confirm whether the quantity of rainwater had decreased. The Member further requested the presenters to comment on the quality of South African water. Parliament was spending thousands of Rands on bottled water. He wondered whether there was a need for bottled water or whether it was simply fashionable.

Dr Kfir said that there was no need for Parliament to use bottled water. There was nothing wrong with South Africa’s tap water. Both Ms Sonjica and Mr Kasrils, former Ministers of Water Affairs and Forestry, used to get upset when they were served bottled water. She suggested that Committees should, like the WRC, invest in glass jugs for serving water. If one preferred soda or carbonated water one could buy it but otherwise there was no need to drink bottled water in any of South Africa’s major urban areas. She explained that once water was bottled it became a food product, which would by regulation, from time to time be removed from the shelves to be tested by the Department of Health. Tap water on the other hand was tested daily and thus made for a better product.

The Chairperson added that it was important for the Committee to lead Parliament and indicated that bottling water was a waste of time and money and not needed for one’s health.

Ms A Dreyer (DA) sought clarity on the closed system mentioned in relation to ecological sanitation. She wondered whether this was similar to dry sanitation.

Dr Kfir confirmed that eco-sanitation referred to dry sanitation, which was also called urine diversion. She explained that there were two attitudes towards it: one thought of it as a solution for poor people while the other saw it as a solution for the rich. In Switzerland whole villages used this form of sanitation because they did not want waterborne sewage to enter into their system and wanted to keep their lakes clean. She informed the Committee that Minister Hendricks often said that poor people in South Africa felt that if they were given eco-sanitation as opposed to waterborne sanitation they were being given an alternative that was not good enough.

She admitted that eco-sanitation was still under-researched and she could not guarantee that it was 100% safe. Eco-sanitation consisted of two elements – liquid sanitation and dry sanitation. Liquid sanitation consisted of urea, which were nitrogen-rich. While urine was a good alternative to fertilizer one had to bear in mind that it also contained chemicals. She could not say how safe it was in the long run.

Dr Kfir explained that dry sanitation required the waste to be composted. One needed education in how to compost it so that it could be used in agriculture as well. With further research eco-sanitation could be a future solution for the whole world not only the poor or the rich. At the moment much energy and water was spent to run sewage through the system and contaminating the water, which then needed to be cleaned again. The WRC ran many projects, such as the big one with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, around eco-sanitation.

Ms Dreyer said that coming from Gauteng she was very aware of the pollution caused by mines, in particular by acid mine drainage. Her constituency included the Cradle of Human Kind, which was a world heritage site. Some caves in this area were threatened by the run off from the mines. She inquired about the progress that had been made on the treatment of this water.

Dr Pietersen explained that mine water pollution was a complex issue. The mining process changed the hydrology of the system quite extensively. The Department of Minerals and Energy supported by the Council for Geosciences was busy with a major initiative that would try to address issues around mine water pollution. The WRC supported this initiative and all other initiatives that tried to understand when and where the mine water would decant. He added that these processes were quite complex to predict.

The WRC together with the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and in partnership with the Gauteng government initiated the process to bring a number of stakeholders or researchers together to try and understand the cradle of Human Kind in terms of its hydrology and the broader environmental impact of mine water acid. The University of Pretoria also worked on trying to understand the hydrology of the region, which had a caste that made the prediction of ground water flow mechanisms and systems quite difficult. The research was ongoing and it was difficult to make predictions about what would be the outcome. The feeling was that these systems would, as mining ceased and as the water table rose, decant. This would have an environmental impact. The WRC had to try to minimise this impact and the understanding was that the Department of Minerals and Energy was working on this issue.

Dr Kfir added that the WRC had produced some documents detailing guidelines for the closure of mines. She explained that even if the mine had been closed long ago, the consequences of the closure were only felt years later. One thus had to carefully consider gold and coal mines and the long-term implications as far as the water table was concerned.

Mr Dithebe wondered if there was any connection between what the WRC was doing and the research chairs that were funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). He asked whether the WRC had informed the Department that it would like some of the focus areas to include water–related issues, etc. He thought that human capital development was needed badly especially considering that the rainy seasons in South Africa were not as wet as elsewhere on the globe.

Dr Kfir explained that the WRC was in discussion with the DST as far as ascertaining whether it could also get research chairs but added that the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry would have to pay for it. The WRC was pleased that some of the water utilities already had chairs. She added that the WRC had in recent years moved closer to the DST - a deputy director general within the Department was actually serving on the WRC’s board. The universities that were funded by the WRC, was supplemented with funding from the NRF as well. The WRC did not mind this “double-dipping”.

Mr Dithebe said that in Allenridge, a small mining area in the Free State, there was a small mine dump where very often during the rainy season water collected very close to the settlement. The various chemicals present in the area made the water unsafe for consumption. The local people were ignorant of the harmful chemicals that may be present in the water. Even after the water dried up the dust spread around the community.

Dr Kfir explained that BioSURE was a simple process but could not be easily implemented. To get it to work on a large-scale one needed the mine as well as a sewage work. The biological effluent was taken from the sewage work and used to neutralise the mine water. One thus came up with a reasonable substance that could be returned to the environment.

The WRC could not pilot and distribute this technology on its own. The East Rand Water Care Company (ERWAT) thus took over the process. It would do the commercialisation and the large-scale development of the patent while the WRC functioned in a support role. ERWAT had promised that once the process was functional it would roll it out across the country and promote it abroad to facilitate its large-scale commercialisation.

She was not sure whether BioSURE would be the solution for the area the Member referred to. The WRC could, once they had more information about the area, perhaps provide him with information on some other bodies that might be able to provide a solution.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) was concerned about the cracks in the dams, particularly the Highlands Water Dam in Lesotho despite assurances that the wall was not very likely to break. If this should happen it would be a major disaster for Lesotho. He wondered if this fell within the WRC’s area of expertise.

Dr Pietersen explained that the WRC funded projects that looked at dam safety and the foundation of hydraulic structures. These projects were ongoing. The Council for Geosciences had a programme that aimed to ensure that the foundations were stable. It was difficult to predict what would happen and fortunately nothing serious had occurred.

Prof Mohamed said that he lived in Gauteng and he knew that there were times when people in Durban and environs suffered water restrictions, while people from Johannesburg and environs had access to water that was being pumped from KwaZulu-Natal.

Dr Pietersen said that the inter-basin transfer schemes were a political issues. It revolved around negotiations between different provinces and different institutions. The WRC was not in a position to comment on these issues.

Dr Kfir pointed out that South Africa shared four river basins with other countries. There was a whole research area directed to hydro-politics – water could either be a reason for peace or a reason for war. Inter-basin issues were big issues. The Nile basin initiative tried to get countries that lived along the Nile river to get along. Ms Dreyer added that the Okavango-delta held similar lessons as far as the risk of conflict over water was concerned.

The Chairperson found this information very interesting and welcomed the WRC’s offer to forward additional information on hydro-politics to the Committee.

Prof Mohamed said that he usually changed the oil in his car himself. He was aware that garages were supposed to accept this oil so that they could safely dispose of it but many did not. He was concerned that thousands of people probably just threw their car oil down the drain.

Dr Pietersen assured the Committee that organic chemical pollution and oil pollution were increasingly being addressed. He was managing a large research project that was looking into groundwater protection and trying to understand how these common contaminants behaved in the environment and how they could be rehabilitated. The project also looked at how one could influence policy to put structures in place to deal with the problem.

He said that WRC unfortunately did not have the laboratories to analyse the different chemicals that played a role. Many samples needed to be sent overseas for analysis. The research was thus very much in the emerging stages.

Prof Mohamed said that he used to have a constituency in the Dobsonville, Soweto area and the communities there were plagued by mine dust that blew into people’s homes and caused various problems. The communities told him that the mine dumps had been stabilised. People from Australia had alerted him that certain carcinogenic chemicals had been used in the stabilisation. The Science Councils refused to respond when he raised this question during a meeting with them. They merely responded that the research was contracted and that they were thus not able to disclose whom they did this for. He knew that they could be forced to disclose the information but this would take much effort on his part.

Dr Pietersen said that he did not have the knowledge to comment on issues related to mine dust.

Dr Kfir emphasised that the WRC did not do air pollution research and would not know about the health risks related to mine dust.

Dr Pietersen added that some research was being done this year into the air pollution caused by coal plants and the implications deposition would have on the water environment. The WRC looked at the matter from a water point of view.

The Chairperson said that as a nuclear scientist he would be able to contribute to this debate. Addressing issues of air pollution was a very important component of nuclear technology. There were radioactive elements in the ground. Dust that came from the mines was normally contaminated with these radionuclides. This posed a grave danger to our health and needed to be looked into.

Dr Kfir said that the WRC had done some isotope studies in water, which were very controversial. Different regulatory elements felt that the methodology used was not the perfect one. The WRC would launch a new study in conjunction with these regulatory bodies.

The Chairperson shared that there was a notion that mine dust would result in “the second Chernobyl”.

Dr Pietersen added that the WRC was looking at the radioactivity of chemicals in water and the implications it held for our health. They had just completed extensive coverage of South Africa in an attempt to understand such things as its geology. South Africa had a very old geology containing naturally occurring toxic substances. The WRC was looking at the problem and how it was manifesting itself in groundwater. Its implications for health would also be considered. The Commission would also be starting a project looking at radioactivity in water in mining areas and their implications.

Mr S Nxumalo (ANC) said that that the Josini Dam was the biggest dam and the Tugela river the biggest river in KwaZulu-Natal yet communities in the surrounding area had no drinking water. He wondered whether the WRC had done any research as to how these communities could be assisted and whether they had advised the relevant department.

Dr Pietersen imagined that this was an institutional and operational problem in terms of how the water was allocated and brought to different communities. The WRC, as an organisation that supported research, reflected on these policies and their implications but the actual issue could only be addresses by national and local government.

Mr S Nxumalo (ANC) wondered what effect the much talked about global warming would have on South Africa’s water resources.

Dr Pietersen said that he had tried to highlight the complexity of the issues around global warming and the impact it would have on the water resources. He said that it was difficult to offer a definitive answer. It appeared as though the western parts of Southern Africa were becoming drier while the eastern parts became wetter. This knowledge was also evolving and the Commission was very much at the forefront in terms of its research. South Africa had huge climate wearability so the emphasis should not necessarily be on mitigation. Instead the focus should be on how people adapted to such extreme environments and on learning lessons from people who lived in such conditions.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) wondered what role the WRC played in cases where there were reports of water pollution, as was the case in Mpumalanga in 2005.

Dr Kfir said that the Commission funded research so as to provide people with the right tools and the capacity to manage water quality effectively. It did not get involved in disaster situations and did not test water. It did sometimes survey areas but this was done mainly for research purposes. The WRC saw local government and the Department of Water Affairs as the people who were in charge of water quality. An incident such as the one in Delmas occurred because there was not an effective use of knowledge. South Africa did not lack the knowledge to manage water quality but sometimes did not have the capacity to do so effectively. The WRC spent much of its time on how to support capacity building in local government. If this happened the management of water quality would improve. Phase one of building capacity in local government has been completed and the Commission would move into a wider capacity building exercise, which would support the management of water services and water resource management in the country.

Ms Ngcobo sought clarity on why the WRC discouraged large-scale farming in favour of small-scale farming.

Dr Kfir pointed out that the WRC was by no means saying that there was no need for funding for large scale farming within South Africa. The WRC had for many years spent a lot of money on how to develop commercial farms. She admitted that the Commission neglected small-scale farming. Many people used small scale farming as a form of subsistence. The WRC’s research needed to move into that area. The WRC started putting into place terms of reference for research into small-scale farming. She added that some research into large-scale farming was still being done.

One could not in the long run look at small scale farming as a means of creating jobs but
at the moment many people relied on it. The WRC also tried to understand the crops they grew and to help them in growing indigenous crops because they did not use much water and had a bigger market. The WRC tried to go into indigenous and organic farming. This was being done in corporation with agricultural research. Much research was also done into nutritional and water needs.

Ms Ngcobo wondered whether the WRC had representatives in the provinces.

Dr Kfir said that the WRC was very small and consisted of 50 people. It was a funding agency that needed to lead and give money for research. As such they tried to keep the Commission very small. The work was done throughout universities, research organisations, consultants in the water sector and anyone else that could contribute. The WRC travelled throughout the country but was based in Pretoria. It did not have provincial presence but worked closely with provinces, with integrated bodies (e.g. South African Local Government Association), local government, etc. It tried to work closely with the various stakeholders and needed to understand their needs.

Ms Ngcobo wondered whether the WRC had knowledge of all the dams that were in the country and requested the presenters to give a gender breakdown of its staff.

Dr Kfir said that the WRC had more women than men but was struggling with getting women involved in the higher echelons. They were trying to get more and more women into research management positions. Women were better represented in the support-giving areas than men, but in research the number of men was greater. In recent years the Commission had put clear strategic policies in place that were aimed at engaging more women. The Commission tried to support women involved in the water sector e.g. the water for women award. The WRC provided a bursary for young scientists in an attempt to get more women into the water field. Women populated certain areas such as e.g. bio-toxicology only, while men populated other areas such as hydrology.

The Chairperson wondered if universities offered courses in water studies.

Dr Kfir said that at graduate level there were some water related courses. She said that at an undergraduate level one did not study water per se but the science courses offered at this level were needed for postgraduate studies in water.

The Commission had in recent years started funding many social scientists but found it very difficult to get social scientists interested in water issues. People with a background in geography normally did research in social issues.

The Chairperson commented that a matriculant from his constituency had approached him for advice around what she could study post matric. He would now be able to advise her to also consider a career in water.

Dr Kfir informed the Committee that it would have an open day on 4 July 2006 at the University of the Western Cape. The WRC’s various projects would be showcased.

The Chairperson said that it would have been interesting to know what water was being used in industries e.g. as a saw, or a drill. He suggested that perhaps the Committee should have a workshop in which they would be able to further discuss the issues around water.

Adoption of Committee Minutes
The Committee adopted the secretary’s minutes of 6 June 2006 subject to certain technical amendments.

Other business
The Chairperson informed the Committee that Mr G Doidge, the Chairperson of Committees and his secretary had said that his office never received any of the applications for the Swedish trip or the
CSIR Innovation, Leadership and Learning Academy (CILLA) project. The Chairperson had gathered all the correspondence that proved that he was aware of the trip and that applications had been made. He had informed Mr Doidge of the CILA project in October 2005 and again after Easter this year. The CILA course was due to start soon and the Committee could not at this point in time be grappling with such issues.

The Committee agreed that it would forward all correspondence related to this matter to the Speaker of the House so that the matter could be attended to at that level.

The Chairperson informed the Committee that Minister Mangena had invited them to attend the research and development media launch and imbizo on 22 June 2006 at eleven o’ clock in the morning. The Committee agreed that it would attend provided the event did not clash with their programme.

The Chairperson said that the Committee had been invited to spend two days at the SASOL plants in Sasolburg and Secunda. Mr Dithebe said that since SASOL was the Department’s biggest contributor in terms of research and development it would be best for the Committee to accept the invitation. The invitation would be processed.

The meeting was adjourned.


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