As a result of complex legal require- ments, most South African com- panies, such as those in the chemicals, oil and gas, mining and extractive industries, are following a tick-box approach to complying with environ- mental management standards, as well as legal, water use licence and other corporate requirements, says consulting engineers and scientists SRK Consulting partner Dr Johanita Kotze.
“In this quest to comply with legal and other requirements, the opportunity to ensure sustainable water management by understanding an operation’s water and salt balances (water footprint) and the risks posed by activities to the receiving environment throughout the entire operation life cycle is missed.
“Process, and not understanding the qualification or quantification of risks, is driving action,” she tells Engineering News.
Kotze adds that, in terms of water management, the focus should be on sustain- ability and, hence, understanding closure risks throughout the operation life cycle.
Although most operations provide for a closure fund for site rehabilitation once operations stop, this fund seldom recognises what the accurate closure risks and costs are in terms of groundwater cleanup and restoration of the ecological systems affected by operations, she says.
Groundwater remediation is one of the most expensive procedures a company can undertake as the water is under- ground, making it difficult to determine the quantity and quality, and the cleanup target.
This is also part of what led to South Africa’s acid mine drainage (AMD) problems. “In the past, companies were mining without taking responsibility for the effects on the ecosystem or taking into account the regional water balance and quality.”
Sustainable water management includes a detailed assessment of salt and water balances for the full life cycle of an operation. The water balance should be zero, ensuring that the footprint of today’s activities do not hinder future generations from enjoying a similar or better quality of life. As water is a nonrenewable, scarce resource, water management plays a significant part in this process, she explains.
The scientific technology and tools to ensure better planning in the future are in place; however, the institutional and governmental frameworks need to focus on ensuring more competent persons are responsible for implementing legislation, asserts Kotze.
“Also, if we change our emphasis from purely meeting compliance to ensuring sustainable water use and project closure, risks will be managed more effectively.”
Water Disclosure and Assurance
Meanwhile, Kotze says water disclosure is becoming an important factor for investors as it is considered a meaningful way for companies to disclose water use, demand and discharge. It has the potential to align legal requirements and company policy while, at the same time, highlighting potential water risks.
Companies are generally doing well in disclosing their blue water, which is clean water used by the operation, and they have a fairly good idea of the amount of grey water produced, although it is not always declared, she says.
“However, the most expensive part companies tend to overlook is the impact of grey water on the country’s green water – the water in the ecosystem. This is commonly represented by negatively impacted groundwater affecting the quality of the base flow to rivers and underground water systems,” she explains.
It often appears that government allows new projects to go ahead without debating all the possible water challenges first.
“Sustainability of projects is not taken into account. There is a failure to keep in mind where the water comes from and if it will still be available in a few years’ time, [bearing in mind] the increase in multiple users over time or prolonged droughts,” she states.
In most cases companies take the lead in assuring water resources for their opera- tions. Kotze believes there is an opportunity for government to play a much bigger role here. “If government had a specialist centre to advise companies on water-related challenges on a regional and national scale, it would enable companies to find more sustainable solutions quicker.”
Since the new Water Act was implemented in 1998, South Africa has embarked on a dynamic path to rethink the value and management of water, but the country still has a long way to go, especially in terms of policies, says Kotze.
“The legal guidelines are in place, but are not enforced as well as they could be, which leads to people taking water for granted.”
Meanwhile, delays in the implementation of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act may also provide challenges.
“Some companies are doing what is right owing to pressure from their shareholders, while others just choose the cheapest solution, or get rid of the waste and effluent in a hole in the backyard or in the nearest water course,” she points out.
Further, she believes there is room for government to make implementation of legislation easier and more practical. “Currently, approval of three or four government departments, or institutions, is required for authorisation of a new mining project,” she points out.
Optimisation of Water Resources
“In South Africa, we tend to dwell on isolated aspects of water management that concern us, overlooking the big picture that could provide the necessary solutions,” says Kotze. In particular, groundwater aspects do not bear the same importance as bulk water projects focusing mostly on surface water.
Coal reserves are located in the Waterberg area in Limpopo, which is a water-scarce area. “However, mining rights are still being approved without the assurance of water supply for those projects,” she says. There is a risk that during prolonged droughts, the cumulative impacts of water users on limited resources could lead to material business risks.
Meanwhile, in Gauteng, there is excess water and the issues associated with AMD, which has resulted in an emotional debate driven by activists.
More recently, the issue of fracking in the water-scarce Karoo, which, even though it may have economic and energy supply benefits, might have a significant impact on the area’s underground water supply.
“We have three different situations in three different provinces. However, if water was truly managed nationally and sustain- ability was the driving force, we would notice that excess water in one province could hold solutions for water shortages faced in other areas,” she explains.
“This calls for a national approach to water management,” Kotze says.
The question is: who pays the bill for the pipeline and why is money the biggest consideration in a water-scarce country for a nonrenewable resource?
In addition, a big issue associated with AMD is often overlooked, Kotze adds, noting the risks posed by the formation of sinkholes associated with rewatering of dolomite.
“During mining, the Witwatersrand gold mines are dewatered, which causes the dolomite rocks to become dry. When the water level rises again and these rocks become wet, the stability of the rocks is of great concern,” she says.
“The excess AMD water from the Witwatersrand mines should be pumped, treated and piped to water-scarce areas where it can be reused for industrial pur- poses or drinking water to stimulate economic growth while, at the same time, preventing the formation of sinkholes” she says.
“As long as water is perceived as a cheap resource – bulk water supply projects will not be sustainable. We need to curb demand and prevent quality impacts,” Kotze concludes.