Stop deliberating, start desalinating

If desalinisation is so expensive why are the Oceana Fishing Group building two plants to supply their own water to the
St Helena Bay and Laaiplek factories at a cost of R20 million.

Tsogo Sun are also building one to supply water to their hotels and the Koeberg desalinisation plant came on stream.

GrahamTek in the Strand signed a R5 billion contract to build its sixth desalinisation plant in Saudi Arabia.

However, GrahamTek said their dealings with the City before and during the tender process has been slow, misleading and fruitless.

“During our engagements with them we never felt a sense of urgency to make things happen.” But that’s a story for another day.

Deputy mayor Ian Neilson said neither he nor Xanthea Limberg, mayoral committee member for informal settlements, water and waste services; and energy, went to Israel to learn about desalinisation technology. This after a senior councillor told me that they had.

“The director of water and sanitation, however, did visit Israel in 2017, together with other representatives from the municipal water supply sector in South Africa and around the world, to attend the Water Technology and Environmental Control conference in Tel Aviv, and to visit various water installations and interact with stakeholders,” he said.

The City rejects the notion “that international controversy surrounding Israel and Palestine has influenced procurement programmes”.

“The City is legally prohibited from considering unsolicited bids unless the service offered cannot be provided by anyone else. As there exists a wide range of service providers from around the world who are able to build and operate desalination plants, the Israeli government or any Israeli company must participate in a competitive tender process, and win the tender, before they can do business with the City of Cape Town. The origin of the technology is not a consideration when awarding tenders in the City of Cape Town. No one was preferred or disadvantaged based on who they are or where they come from. A tender award is based only on the suitability of the tenderer to deliver the outcomes sought in the tender,” he said.

The Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry did some research into the economics of water to try to understand the City’s refrain that desalinisation is too expensive.

Chamber president, Janine Myburgh, said Cape Town buys water from the supply dams for R4.50 for 1 000 litres or one kilolitre (Kl) and sells it at tariffs ranging from R10 a Kl to R42 to domestic consumers.

“The lower figure is subsidised and does not reflect the full cost of filtration, treatment and distribution. The price to commerce and industry is nearly R19 a Kl. Internationally the cost of desalinated sea water is as low as 50 US cents a Kl, equal to R7 a Kl at R14 to the dollar and R6 in the post-Zuma era of under R12 to the dollar.

“In May 2017 GrahamTek offered to finance, build and operate a large desalination plant and supply the City with 250 000 Kl of water a day at a cost of R5.50 cents a Kl. If Cape Town used a mixture of 30% desalinated sea water and 70% dam water the increase in the price of water would be 6.54%, a small price to pay for total water security in a world of climate change,” said Ms Myburgh.

Small desalination plants like those being built for Oceana and the hotels, produce expensive water but they will be competing with the City’s retail tariff of nearly R19 a cubic metre.

“If they are not already cheaper, they soon will be as there will be sharp increases in municipal water tariffs in the future. And we can expect lower desalination costs as the technology improves,” said Ms Myburgh.

If private desalination works for a hotel group, it should work even better for the whole of the V&A Waterfront as the economies of scale will come into play.

The V&A has made major investments in rooftop solar with a promise of more to come which will probably help them to control their costs as water and electricity tariffs rise each year. Other firms with convenient access to the sea will probably follow.

“This will mean a loss of customers and sales, a serious problem as the City has long relied too much on the revenue from electricity and water. The loss of high end customers also means less money to subsidise the poor.

“All this could have been avoided with better long-term planning. If, for instance, the City had taken the initiative and found a way to embrace desalination as part of its long-term water plans. This is the price we are paying for the politicising of the City council which promotes short-term thinking and an inability to see beyond the next election,” Ms Myburgh said.

Tom Freyberg, editor of Water and Wastewater International, said GrahamTek has already built a $2.1 million desalinisation plant to provide emergency supply during Day Zero. It will provide between 2 500 and 12 500 cubic metres of potable water a day. Freyberg says GrahamTek is negotiating with authorities to agree to a location.

Meanwhile, the City has cancelled its R650 000 contract with Tony Leon’s company, Resolve Communications, to run a campaign to make us aware of the drought.

Whatever they paid was water down the drain, especially when the agency chose Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the DA, as their poster boy. Politicians should stick to what they know. One half page ad in the Cape Argus read: “Act now. We must defeat Day Zero,” and Maimane listed “3 things you must do right now.” None of them that we hadn’t heard before.