The Department of Water Affairs and civil society organisations had agreed that "some degree" of desalination should be added to the short-term plan for treating acid mine water threatening the water supply to the Witwatersrand, the Free State gold fields and Northern Cape, Human Rights Commission official Janet Love said yesterday.
Projections were that if the Witwatersrand’s acid mine drainage problem was not attended to in the region, which is Africa and SA’s economic hub, the area would suffer shortages of usable water from 2014. Also, the effect of the additional water supply from the second phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme would be diminished.
Desalination is not part of the short-term plan drawn up by the state-owned enterprise tasked with treating acid mine water, the Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA).
At a meeting convened this week by SA’s Human Rights Commission, Department of Water Affairs water quality control deputy director-general Marius Keet said that adding desalination to the short-term solution was "definitely on the table", but that this would have to be given the go-ahead by the department.
TCTA spokeswoman Thandi Mapukata said the authority "undertook to investigate the feasibility of temporary desalination plants ".
Ms Love said the meeting’s outcome meant that the ministerial directive to the TCTA would have to be amended. It had been agreed that the requisite authorities would report back on this by May.
In the meantime, the TCTA would continue with its short-term plan, which is to treat the acid water to remove heavy metals. This process, however, did not remove sulphates from the water and these were "hugely damaging" to human health and to agriculture, she said.
Federation for a Sustainable Environment CEO Mariette Liefferink said neutralisation would leave 2500mg/l of sulphates in the water. The World Health Organisation’s standard for sulphates in drinking water was 200mg/l and the Department of Water Affairs standard was 600mg/l for drinking water, 150mg/l for irrigation and 1000mg/l for cattle watering.
The commission convened the Johannesburg meeting in terms of the authority given to it through the Human Rights Act to assemble committees of experts to investigate issues that affect human rights. M s Love said the commission intervened because "it seemed to us the parties (who had to decide on what to do about acid mine drainage) were not engaging with each other in an effective manner. Ultimately, it (acid mine drainage) has to be looked at as a human rights issue and we took a role as facilitator."
An independent consultant who works for the TCTA has warned that SA’s mining industry is already being constrained by water shortages and if acid mine water is not desalinated, the Upper Vaal could go into deficit by 2015 and mining in six provinces would be affected.