22 June 2012

A man washes his hands from a water tank at the Vivo informal settlement near the disused Durban Deep mine in Roodepoort on Johannesburg's West Rand. Local communities in South Africa, already struggling for access to water, may lose their water rights to make way for mines.

It’s a little known fact that South Africa has some of the best quality water in the world – for those who have access to it, and can afford to pay for it. But the country is facing a looming water conflict, and coal is right in the middle of it.

The quantity of water available for each person in the world is declining steadily. Nowhere is the rate of decline as dramatic as we continue to see in Africa. Chillingly, the estimates are that South Africa won’t be able to meet its water demand by as early as 2030.

In the face of this kind of future, surely every effort to avoid this impending crisis must be made? But that is simply not the case.

Two new mega coal-fired power stations (Medupi and Kusile) are being built by the national utility, Eskom, and new coal mines are being approved without a clear view of what the water impacts are likely to be, or where the water will come from.

The reality is that local communities may well lose their water rights to make way for mines.

Kusile will use 173 times more water than wind power would use per unit of electricity produced, and Eskom gets a guaranteed supply of water, no matter what.

Eskom plays a very influential role in South Africa – but has no genuine accountability, and continues to claim that coal is the cheapest source of electricity, and that new investments in coal are necessary to ‘keep the lights on’. But residential users only amount for 16-18% of this country’s electricity use.

What the utility really means is that new investments in coal are necessary to cater to energy-intensive industries, with massive unaccounted-for water impacts, and at the expense of the 12.3 million South Africans without access to electricity.

What is clear is that South Africa is facing some crunch decisions on how it will allocate its dwindling and increasingly expensive water resources in the future. It currently looks like agriculture (and essentially food security) and local communities’ access to water will ultimately be the big loser, and energy-intensive industries the big winner. South Africa’s continued reliance on coal goes to the heart of whether we can keep our taps running with clean water.

The question is: Are the right decisions being taken around water in South Africa?

It seems to me, that the answer is unfortunately: no. So it is clearly up to us to demand that the right decisions are taken, which will take us towards the kind of future that we want to see.

Download the report: Coal's Hidden Water Cost.

Poisoned Power: see the harsh facts of SA's coal addiction.