A water treatment plant. Picture: SUPPLIED
A water treatment plant. Picture: SUPPLIED

A Richards Bay-based desalination plant has begun processing hundreds of kilolitres of salt water to ease the shortage of drinkable water caused by the current drought.

This plant is part of a R72m special public-private sector deal between a private company, South32, the KwaZulu-Natal department of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, along with water utility Umhlathuze Water and Umhlathuze Local Municipality.

The plant has begun desalinating water abstracted from the local Manzamnyama Canal, in a pilot project. The water is then processed to separate salt and other minerals to yield fresh, drinkable water.

Michael Fraser, the CEO of South32, said they were excited about the project because the technology used to desalinate sea water could be the answer to SA’s water challenges, especially as the country faces one of the worst droughts in a generation.

Fraser said the plant was commissioned two months ago and was now able to produce more than 100m³ of treated water per day.

It was presently supplying the BHP Billiton-run Hillside Aluminium Smelter complex, but there were plans to supply water to the local municipality if the pilot project was successful.

He said the idea of the desalination plant emerged when the aluminium smelter was harmed by forced stoppages, after the implementation of stringent water restrictions in Richards Bay and surrounding areas.

"The company (South32) investigated solutions to ensure consistent water supply to the operation was maintained, and to reduce reliance on the municipal water.

"The desalination of seawater was identified as the preferred alternative as it will not only supply adequate water to ensure operations are maintained, it will also be able to supplement the municipal water supply in times of critical shortage," Fraser said.

Sihle Zikalala, KwaZulu-Natal MEC for economic development, tourism and environmental affairs, said the provincial government was on the look-out for initiatives that would solve the current challenges brought about by droughts.

However, environmental protection lobby groups said the initiative raised more questions than it answered.

The Southern African Faith Communities’ Environment Institute (SAFCEI) said while it was not aware of the desalination plant in Richards Bay, it knew that it cost millions of rand just to purify a small amount of water.

SAFCEI spokesperson Liziwe McDaid said and maintaining and operating a desalination plant cost a fortune.

"It would be interesting [to know] how much the government is spending on this project and that it is not spending money on a white elephant," McDaid said. "I wonder whether this amount of money could not be used to save water and provide people with potable water instead of assisting a plant that supplies its water to a smelter that does not create that many jobs in the first place."

The City of Cape Town has also mooted the idea of securing its water supplies by constructing desalination plants that would purify sea water.

However, Neil Armitage, head of the University of Cape Town’s department of civil engineering, and director of its urban water management research unit,

has said desalinating sea water must be a last resort, because it was costly and consumed an enormous amount of energy. It would be far cheaper to desalinate treated sewage or secondary sources of water, he said.

Please login or register to comment.