Construction is under way on a desalination plant at Strandfontein Beach. This plant will be one of several to supplement the City of Cape Town’s fresh water supply.
The acute water shortages facing South Africa and the Cape provinces in particular, have forced on to the national stage the long-overdue debates about what we, as a country, need to do to augment our meagre water resources.

As a water-scarce country with a growing population, South Africa needs to find more ways than what is on offer. Desalination, which has been identified as one of the measures to obviate the calamity that stares us in the face, is being branded by some as unsafe and a serious health risk to communities.

This is odd given the fact that desalination has, from time immemorial, been used as a source of water by water-stressed countries to augment their water resources. Globally, desalination is nothing new; in fact, it has been a major source of water in countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Neither are we strangers to it.

The International Desalination Association said last year that 18426 desalination plants operated worldwide, producing 86.8-million cubic metres a day and providing water for 300million people.

The controversy surrounding desalination and the many myths about its safety is resulting in many communities, especially in drought-stricken areas, rejecting the option. To some, desalinated water does not provide a viable alternative as they claim it comes with possible serious and costly health hazards. As the growing perception takes root, there is every possibility that the infrastructure that resembles a desalination plant might become a white elephant or be vandalised.

Thus, it is imperative that more is done to dispel the myths. More constructive noise needs to be made about the success of the portable desalination plant in Richards Bay in KwaZulu-Natal. This water is safe for drinking and experts have given it the nod. This plant provides an extra 10megalitres of clean drinking water a day.

However, as in the case of the City of Cape Town, the intervention in Richards Bay was not without criticism. Some naysayers complained that desalination was expensive and thus unsustainable. And as in the case of Richards Bay, the utmost regard should be given to the fact that the necessity of providing water to communities in drought-stricken provinces far outstrips the price tag attached to the projects.

Cape Town is home to many multinational companies. It is also a leading tourist destination that relies heavily on securing an uninterrupted supply of water. If the city is without water for months on end, there is little doubt that it would affect the livelihoods of those who are employed by the tourism sector and beyond.

While the Department of Water and Sanitation is making an effort to augment water resources, this does not mean that harnessing and storing water through catchment management areas takes a back seat. The effort towards desalination is but one of the ways in which the government seeks to ensure the constitutional right of the public to basic services, especially water.

The department is urging the public to save water. It is also looking at other safe responses.

Providing safe and clean water remains the primary concern of the department and a responsibility we are not about to shirk.

* Sifiso Mkhize, acting director-general of the Department of Water and Sanitation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Cape Argus