With South Africa facing even more dire water shortages than expected, the need for desalination is vital and should be at the forefront of government plans, according to local water expert and University of the Free State professor Dr Anthony Turton.
“Desalination is a critical component. It is probably more important than nuclear. Everyone is talking about nuclear but, frankly, that is a secondary issue,” Turton told the yearly conference of the Southern African Asset Management Association, Saama.
He argued that desalination technologies should be used in cities like Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, East London and Richards Bay, also suggesting that this could cascade into recycling sewage, which he considers a game changer.
“If we can recycle our sewage we can recover five-billion litres of water a day. If you take 100 ℓ of sewage effluent that each South African produces, and multiply that by 50-million people, that's the volume of water that we can recover.”
Turton told Engineering News Online on the sidelines of the conference that he could not see a future for South Africa that held “stable, full economic growth, social cohesion and stability” unless significant policy reforms were implemented right down to the provincial and local authority level.
“Policy reform has to be about recycling technologies for the future,” he said.
Turton further highlighted a breakthrough at the University of Wisconsin, in the US, that could also propel change.
“We’ve been stymied by the absence of technology for the removal of phosphate, but the university has come up with a technology that produces pure phosphate. We now have the potential to turn a sewage works into a phosphate recover plant, so that you can have chemically pure phosphate and nitrates coming out of the plant, and you can also create clean water.”
Turton suggested that South Africa’s wastewater treatment plants – around 800 of them – could potentially be converted to this kind of technology.
“This is the new frontier and the cutting edge of where we are going. The water crisis should not be all ‘doom and gloom’. It’s a story of hope and the vision of a brighter future.”
However, Turton noted that visionary leadership was needed to ensure policy change, while the involvement of the private sector would be essential.
Turton said South Africa’s water quality was generally sound, but that it was open to great risk. Infrastructure was also under huge pressure.
“We are now starting to see a rapid degradation of our infrastructure across the board, and an ability of the infrastructure to get the water to where it is needed.”
Turton suggested that asset managers tighten their plans and develop water-testing regimes, among other plans.
He also suggested that companies develop a register of risk and look at their mitigation strategies; that they take into account elements surrounding the assurance of water supply – from the volume and the pressure to the quality of water and the price. He used the April fire at a Braamfontein office block, in Gauteng, as an example.
“The company had fire risk assurance, but both the pressure and the volume of the water wasn’t enough.”
Turton suggested that the asset management industry as well as the insurance industry protect themselves by ensuring sufficient on-site storage of water. Ultimately, the design of buildings and asset management infrastructure could change completely, he said.
Meanwhile, Turton noted that South Africa had started to see a dramatic change in the distribution of rainfall since the 1990s, particularly in winter rainfall areas. He said the dramatic drop in rainfall held dire implications for crop growing countrywide.
Further, climate change studies at the University of the Witwatersrand had shown that, while the Free State may become more well-endowed with rainfall in time, other parts of the country could become drier, including the Western Cape.
“There’s a statistical possibility that the Western Cape could flip over into a summer rainfall area. If that happens, it would have a devastating impact on local agriculture, as well as biodiversity,” explained Turton.
The Saama conference, being held in Somerset West, has drawn together a range of experts in the field of asset management. It aims to help delegates get an in-depth understanding of the current asset management landscape in Southern Africa.