Finance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube. Picture: Sibonelo Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)
Finance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube. Picture: Sibonelo Ngcobo/African News Agency(ANA)

KZN water recycling plan to alleviate water shortages and meet demand

By Vernon Mchunu Time of article published May 19, 2021

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DURBAN - A WASTEWATER recycling project aimed at alleviating dire water shortages and meeting the high demand in the industrial Richards Bay and surrounding areas is in the pipeline, the City of uMhlathuze has confirmed.

The project, to be facilitated through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) initiative, was expected to help supplement supply from the costly sea-to-drinkable water desalination plant and the drained natural freshwater resources in the region.

Assisted by the provincial Treasury Department, the municipality was negotiating with potential consumers, who included various local manufacturing and mining giants and the vast farming community, spokesperson Mduduzi Ncalane said.

In terms of the project, wastewater would be refreshed into “white water” for use by the commercial farming community and industrial companies, including Alusaf Aluminium, Foskor, Mondi Paper, Richards Bay Minerals, Richards Bay Coal Terminal.

“We are faced with a serious shortage of water in the area. As an example, Foskor (producer of phosphate rock-based fertiliser and sulphuric acid) requires 30 million litres of water each day, while the Esikhaleni cluster zone (Esikhaleni, Ngwelezane, KwaDube, Port Dunford, Dlangezwa, Mkhwanazi North, Vulindlela, Felixton, Mangezi Reserve, and other areas) alone need 50 million litres a day,” Ncalane said.

“The reality is that as the municipality, our capacity is a lowly 36 million litres a day, and we have several cluster areas, which include a number of big manufacturing and mining companies and commercial farms that need water to maintain production,” he said.

Asked if the existing desalination plant had not provided some measure of relief, Ncalane said it did, but indicated that the capacity of the plant was limited to potable water only and unable to meet the high industrial and farming demands.

At R500 000 for one month alone, operating the plant was a huge cost to the municipality (and the Department of Water and Sanitation as a partner), Ncalane added.

“We activate the desalination plant only on emergency occasions because it is very expensive to operate,” said Ncalane.

Welcoming the initiative, Professor Mike Muller, a senior lecturer at the Wits School of Governance and chairperson of the Water Institute of SA’s Technical Committee, said treating wastewater to a higher quality and reusing it rather than simply dumping it into the sea made more sense.

“The cost of that extra treatment should of course be paid for by the organisations that use the water,” he said, adding that the initiative should come cheaper than desalinating sea water. “This does not always apply inland where treated wastewater is often required to be returned to the river from which it is taken. This is so that people downstream have a reliable source to meet their needs. That’s why it is so important for municipalities to treat their wastewater properly.”

Professor Anthony Turton, of the Centre for Environmental Studies at the University of the Free State, said for Mhlathuze to shore up its capacity, it needed to invest in an upscaled desalination project which would blend wastewater with sea water, saying that route would lower production costs significantly.

While recycling was one approach to upscale water supply, however, it generally yielded relatively low volumes as opposed to a desalination at a utility scale, he said.

A desalination plant operation would be cheaper if it was designed to generate at least 100 million litres as opposed to the current paltry 1 million produced on occasion, said Turton.

In addition, in order to attract private investors, the capital repayment period should be at least 25 years as opposed to the current 24 months.

“If you blend the wastewater with sea water, you lower the salinity level of the sea water and therefore from a technical perspective, you lower the osmotic pressure and thus you lower the unit energy cost needed to desalinate. The city can have a very prosperous future with that kind of consideration. but without water, the city is doomed to a future of dismal underperformance, unemployment and stifled economic development.”

Delivering the 2020/21 Budget vote, Finance MEC Nomusa Dube-Ncube said the PPP Unit within the provincial Treasury would help advise the City of uMhlathuze towards the implementation of the project.

“The feasibility study for this project has been completed … Treasury views and recommendations for the study have been obtained. Before issuing tender documents to the market to attract a private party, the municipality is in its final negotiation process with its off takers and Umhlathuze Water for this water reuse, a critical path in ensuring the sustainability of this project,” said Dube-Ncube, adding that the department would enforce and monitor the implementation of the Preferential Procurement Policy Framework Act towards achieving the economic transformation agenda.

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