Last week, representatives of the mines, tourism establishments, communities, NGOs and government around Rustenburg and Sun City held their first meeting as the Greater Pilanesberg Water Forum, organised by the Federation for a Sustainable Environment (FSE).
They all have a vested interest in addressing a rapidly growing problem: numerous and conflicting claims on the area’s restricted water sources.
This is a national problem. It may seem that parts of SA get a lot of rain at various times of the year, but it is erratic, and growing urban populations are putting a strain on water supply and purification. SA is ranked 21st on risk analysts Maplecroft’s list of the world’s most water-stressed countries, just after Namibia.
Richard Holden of the Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority said Southern Africa’s water was supplied by a number of interlinked basins dependent ultimately on the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. All these basins were under pressure. The department of water affairs (DWA) expected that SA was going to run into a water deficit in the near future unless acid mine drainage around Johannesburg was effectively addressed.
FSE representative Mariette Liefferink said there were about 52 villages in Limpopo province without any water. Yet in 2011 and 2012 at least 50 applications for prospecting and mining licences were granted in this area by the department of mineral resources.
Many people at the forum were critical of the platinum mines. The Pilanesberg area contains the western limb of the semicircular geological formation called the Bushveld Complex, with most of the world’s platinum deposits. The presence of the mines has drawn in large numbers of people seeking jobs. The biggest operations of Anglo American Platinum and Impala Platinum are located around Rustenburg, as well as a number of smaller mines, whose representatives also attended the meeting.
But as the Pilanesberg is also an area of great natural beauty, Sun International has built Sun City and the Legacy Group has built three lodges around the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Sun International resorts operations director John Lee said Sun City and its associated businesses sold about 317 000 room nights a year, of which 24% were to international visitors, and it employed about 6000 people. It used about 7,5m litres of water a day, for which it paid R7,63/kilolitre. It reused about a third of this water, mainly for irrigation.
Lee said there were plans to expand Sun City and upgrade its convention facilities to international standards, but all this depended on water. “We are worried about sustainability, given the current water shortages and number of users in the area,” he admitted.
Legacy Group chairman Bart Dorrestein said the stranglehold that the mining companies had on the area was a concern because of the pressure on resources. But at the same time the mines brought in business and were vital to the local and national economy. “There is a great need for both of us, tourism and mining,” he said.
Community representatives, though, didn’t see the bigger picture. They complained the mines were taking away their water, and in particular were exhausting the groundwater without compensating them. One said that because of water shortages, she was obliged to pay R20 to buy 25l of water, which she could not afford but the mines certainly could.
One local activist even accused the mining companies of using chemicals to prevent rain in certain areas. Petrus Venter, a deputy director of the DWA, said there was no evidence of that, though an unrehabilitated rock dump would create a microclimate which deterred rainfall. Rainfall is precipitated by the moisture generated by dense vegetation.
Janet Love of the SA Human Rights Commission said mining was vital to the development of SA but it could be done more responsibly than at present. The lack of regulatory certainty for mining companies would, over time, lead to irresponsible behaviour.
One of the examples of irresponsible behaviour was levelled by NGOs at Eskom’s representative at the meeting, citing press reports that the utility had been buying coal from 19 coal mines which were operating without water use licences.
But the reason for this has been discussed extensively in media and parliament for the past two years: because of a lack of capacity in the DWA, a huge backlog built up in issuing water licences to the mines. The department has been tackling the backlog aggressively in the past year.
Another serious problem has been municipal authorities’ inefficiency in managing maintenance of existing infrastructure, metering and billing for water. Holden said building and maintaining dams, water pipelines and treatment plants cost money and South Africans were paying water tariffs well below the costs of delivering water to their taps.
He said the cost of a bottle of Coca-Cola, in cubic metres, translated to around R21000/m³. Making each cubic metre of Coke used about two cubic metres of water, which cost about R44. Yet “no-one protests at the price of Coke”, he said.
Another example Holden gave to illustrate how water was priced incorrectly was his own water bill. Three people on his property in Johannesburg used about 12kl/month, and paid the equivalent of R1,77/day for it.
“The costs of paying for our water infrastructure are being pushed onto future generations,” he said. “The solution is to ensure that people who can afford it – industry, the non-indigent and agriculture – pay the full costs of receiving their water.”
The message from many speakers was that though SA was a water-stressed country, there were various measures it could take to help avert a crisis before it spent billions on new schemes. These included tackling acid mine drainage, fixing municipal infrastructure to stem water losses and educating the public about the value of water.
“Will we have an e-toll saga over rising water tariffs?” asked DWA planning and information manager Fred van Zyl. “We have to think of ways to soften the blow.”
Charlotte Mathews, Financial Mail