Water Quality and Pollution Challenges Facing South Africa

“It is …clear that the (Vaal River) system is under severe pressure and there is no reserve for further dilution to take place. It is this fact that is making the option of transporting more water from the Vaal to Witbank so precarious. All of the clean water out of the Lesotho Highlands Project is needed for dilution of the pollutants in the Vaal system. There is no spare capacity.” ~ Koos Pretorius, Director and Founding member of FSE

Download the full document (about 1MB) Portfolio Committee presentation June 2008

Extracts from the document: (please note that graphs and maps are not included here)

ESKOM needs but a small fraction of the coal deposits (unquantified reserves) of the country. If one takes into account that ESKOM uses roughly 30% of the coal mined ( SASOL and Exports account for another 50% and local use the rest) , then it is clear that the vast majority of our coal deposits will not be mined in the next 30 years.

It is our contention that the whole world will not be using coal fired energy in 30 years time, but that alternative sources of energy will be developed. That means that 80 – 85% of the coal reserve and up to 90% of the coal deposit will be left in the ground.

It is thus imperative that we decide which deposits and reserves we are going to mine and which we are not going to mine.

Water sources:

When one looks at the watersheds it is clear that the escarpment area of Mpumalanga plays a vital role. All of the rivers of the highly active economic interior, except the Limpopo River, have their headwaters in this region. The Orange River’s water is also directed towards this are through the Lesotho Highlands Project.

ESKOM Supply:

Surety of supply at 99.5 % to ESKOM was breached last year in May from the Komati. It is also predicted by DWAF that the Grootdraai dam will breach this between 2014 – 2018. By 2030 this surety of supply will be breached 100% of the time.

DWAF also is of the opinion that the deterioration in the quality of the water systems will continue to deteriorate despite their efforts to halt it. Meaningful intervention is also expected to be costly and would not yield rapid results.

Water Quality

The water quality in the Witbank Dam ( Olifants River) is already polluted to such an extent that it is unsuitable for power generation. (It should be noted that the higher the level of pollution of the water, the more water is being used by the industries.)

From the graphs of the Witbank and Middelburg dams it is clear that the water deterioration is so critical that it is threatening to exceed the water drinking standard of 1000 mg/L TDS and 200mg/L SO4 within the next few years.

It has already exceeded Class I standards of 450 mg/l TDS and 200mg SO4 numerous times in the past and the Middelburg dam is outside of this Class I water quality on a continuous basis. (The impact of this on disadvantaged communities suffering from poverty and high incidence of HIV/AIDS and TB should not be underestimated.)

From the graphs the outlook into the future looks extremely negative unless drastic action is taken. It should also be mentioned that for irrigation purposes a TDS below 160mg/ L is needed. The current situation poses a grave threat for the long term sustainability of irrigation projects and especially of new BEE targeted projects. The salinification of the soil will make most crops unsustainable in the medium to long term.

Currently water is pumped from the Komati and Usuthu rivers to the Witbank area in order to dilute the water from the Olifants in order for ESKOM to be able to utilize the water for power generation purposes. Despite this ESKOM is in need of another 118 ML per day for the new power station and the recommissioned Komati power station. There are currently roughly 200ML per day being decanted by the mines in the Olifants River catchment. There are 2 options of .supplying this water. Either locally rehabilitate the water (polluter pays principle) or pump in the water from the Vaal, and not force the polluters to pay.

From the graphs of the Vaal River it is also clear that the system is under severe pressure and there is no reserve for further dilution to take place. It is this fact that is making the option of transporting more water from the Vaal to Witbank so precarious. All of the clean water out of the Lesotho Highlands Project is needed for dilution of the pollutants in the Vaal system. There is no spare capacity.

The future:

From the map of the different coal mines it should be noted that there are only a small fraction of the mines that are closed and decanting at full capacity. The vast majority are still active and decant is thus limited. There will thus be a new wave of decant in the next 10 – 15 years and no natural capacity to deal with it in the river systems. From the maps about the current mines ( in blue) and the mining related coal applications ( red) it is clear that there will be further trouble ahead unless the method of prevention of AMD is changed. The current AMD will be insignificant against the AMD that will follow if all of the applications are successful and the current mines are allowed to decant.

The background water quality at 42 TDS is exceptional. What is very worrying is the water quality from the loading facilities and the mines that is running into the town dams of Ermelo and Carolina. It should be noted that these are small individual scattered mines, but that the new wave of applications and the current mines operating without water use licenses will drastically change all of that.

A small insight into the potential problems awaiting us is the Vogelstruispoort case in the last line of the table. The mine water has contaminated the next farm’s underground supply and the owner now has heavy metal poisoning due to the quality of the water. He is very seriously ill.

The solution:

The reserves of the country.
It should be noted that the Waterberg reserve has increase significantly in the last few years by an additional around 52 Billion tons or 50% of the countries reserve. What is important is the very low 8 % ( or 4% with the new Waterberg reserve) that is contained in the escarpment area. This coal is deep ( 20 – 100 m), thin ( 1.5 – 2.5 m avg) and of a quality that ESKOM cannot use. It is only a very small percentage of the coal that can be used by ESKOM since the majority is of export quality.

This should be compared with the Waterberg area where the coal is shallow, (10 – 20m) and very thick ( 60 – 120m) .

All we wish to show is that there are alternative coal resources and that it is of critical importance that a spatial development framework plan be commissioned to find out:
· What are the alternatives;
· What is the advantages of the reserves;
· What are the disadvantages;
· What are the implications for transport, water, biodiversity, etc for mining each reserves;
· What social implications?

The above should lead us to a solution where it can be stated which reserve is the most sustainable reserves to mine and in which order they should be mined. This will lead to the DME directing, as is possible under the MPRDA, mining companies into the identified areas.

Koos Pretorius

Director and Founding Member, Federation for a Sustainable Environment

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