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As part of Investec’s In conversation event series, titled Sustainable living – Empowering solutions, Melanie Humphries (head of Investec Sustainable Solutions) has an in-depth discussion on the ongoing water crisis with expert, Pierre Lundberg. 

Unpacking the current state of water infrastructure in South Africa

The water crisis

Water expert, Prof Turton says that the National Water Source Strategy study indicated that SA had allocated 98% of all the water available nationally. In other words, there was only 2% of the water left for existing lawful uses. “The simple reality is that we don't have any water left to allocate and we have to start doing things better.”

He mentions that is important to understand Green Drop, Blue Drop, and the No Drop Report.
“In SA, because we have a fundamentally, water-constrained economy, the engineering philosophy that has underpinned all the design has been an indirect reuse model. This means that all the water coming through the economy must be treated to a high standard. That's the Green Drop Report. When it comes out of a pipe, at the end of the process, it goes back into the river and then it into a water treatment plant for making drinking water. That's the Blue Drop Report.”

He says that the last report that only 3% of our water coming out of the wastewater works is compliant, so 97% is non-compliant in some form or other.

“In addition, roughly 30% to 50% of all the water we put into our pipes gets lost. This is a big number. The simple reality is that our infrastructure is old and tired and must be replaced. So, if we're going to be digging up our roads and putting in new pipes, then, let's put two pipes in. One for drinking quality water and the other for water that you can water your garden with. We need water of different quality, at different prices, for different purposes, at different times, and in different places. And this is where we're going to, that sort of, what I call a dual stream reticulation economy.”

  • What are the parameters of drinking water quality?

    What are the parameters of drinking water quality?

    Parameters used to measure drinking water quality include pH, temperature, electrical conductivity, turbidity, ORP (oxidation reduction potential), TDS (total dissolved solids) and algal content. Potable water standards are defined by SANS 241 in South Africa.

  • What is Blue Drop and Green Drop?

    What is Blue Drop and Green Drop?

    Blue Drop and Green Drop are two separate audit frameworks developed to measure the performance and standards compliance of South Africa’s water and wastewater treatment plants, overseen by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS).

Why energy is important to water supply

Yelland states that electricity and water are intertwined. You need electricity to pump water from rivers and dams to a purification work. You need electricity to run the purification work. You need electricity to pump the water from the purification work to the reservoirs, all around the country.

“It's not too bad if you have stage one and two loadshedding, because there is water storage. When you have stage four or five and six, it's starting to show. And when you're having that four-hour stretches a couple of times a day, you will have water shortages. There is a direct connection between water in your home and electricity.”

Prof Turton says that every drop of water in Gauteng, is pumped over the Drakensberg Mountain, from the Tugela River, using surplus energy on the national grid. “That's what the Sterkfontein Pump Storage Scheme was designed for - to take the surplus energy, store it as a battery on top of the mountain. When they released on the other side, they recovered two-thirds of the energy they'd invested in, to getting it up the mountain, in the first place.”

No end in sight to the water crisis

Prof Turton says that there are master plans, but much like the Integrated Resource Plan for Electricity plan, we have analysis paralysis and not much transition to action and implementation.

“I'm a member of this SA Business Water Chamber - we've been engaging with the presidency for a couple of years on this matter now. We keep on telling them that this is important, but it's not come to the top of the agenda, where it must be.

From an engineering perspective, for every rand you spend in creating water as an economic enabler, if you've got a conservative multiplier of three, so we need about a trillion rand, so that's R3 trillion. Now we're talking serious money, but it's doable. And in fact, we must ask, what is the cost of doing nothing?”

Recovering, recapturing and reusing are key to addressing water shortages in South Africa

Prof Turton states that SA has 48 billion cubic metres of water, but we will need about 63 billion cubic metres by about 2030 if we want to create full employment.

“We must start investing in recycling, recovering, recapturing, and reusing water. All our coastal cities are fundamentally water-constrained. Why? Because the water is being used upstream, inland, and what's left the coastal cities get. But you're surrounded by oceans. And I’m extremely bullish on seawater desalination.”

According to Prof Turton, the global benchmark number for seawater desalination is 35 US cents per cubic meter. In SA, from a river, the average price is around about R10 to R12 a cubic meter. “So, we are not far from that point either. I'm talking 200 megalitres a day, one-quarter of the baseload for the City of Cape Town, that's what we need. And that's going to become increasingly investable. There's a whole lot of good news stories around that.”

Backup water systems: a new necessity?

Water expert, Pierre Lundberg says that the Constitution states that it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure we have access to good water. Water security is two things, accessibility of, and quality of water.

“So, typically, what we're looking at, is backup systems on a municipal feed. You have your water on a bypass going into a tank and then from the tank, with a variable speed drive pump, through a filtration system that goes into the house. You may not store water in a tank and leave it there. It is illegal.” Understand the by-laws, so you are clear on what you may and may not do.

Installing a borehole

If you are getting a borehole, he stresses that it’s important to understand the process. In Cape Town, you must apply for permission, and it must be registered.

“When you start considering a borehole and before you put the infrastructure in, understand the treatment and maintenance cost. When you do drill for the borehole, and the water comes, understand what the yield is. The yield and the recharge is going to define what you need on the surface to be able to meet your demand.”

Rainwater harvesting systems

The next option is domestic rainwater harvesting. “Rainwater is not potable water - it must be treated. Understand it's corrosivity - typical rainwater in SA is 5.6 pH to 5.6 pH and this is going to eat your piping. Then it doesn't matter what filtration system you have; you're going to start ingesting metal. You also have birds and rats on the roof that creates bacteria that goes into the water. The tanks are standing in the sun, and they heat up and then cool down. That's the best breeding ground for different types of diseases, including Legionnaires disease”.

Greywater harvesting

The next option is greywater harvesting. It’s a good option if you have economies of scale, eg buildings. “But when you start going to small greywater harvesting, remember, you must take water from your showers and washing machine. You cannot take it from the toilet. You cannot take it from the sink where you're washing plates with fat, grease, and oils. You can use greywater for irrigation, and you'll recirculate it into your house for toilet use.”

Then there’s blended solutions. People are blending municipal, borehole, greywater, and rainwater to find a solution that works for them.

Prof Turton says that economies of scale matter. “Firstly, the cost per unit of water consumed, processed or stored, is better if you can share that cost. And the second thing is expertise, because you must understand certain fundamental things related to chemistry and physics and maybe biology.

But the simple reality is that, at national level, I don't see the ship being turned around easily, maybe the next decade, if we're lucky. I think you're going to start seeing your entrepreneurial type of people coming forward to provide those solutions, to outsource the liability, if you like, from your trustees or the directors, whatever.”

  • How much is borehole drilling in South Africa?

    How much is borehole drilling in South Africa?

    Drilling a borehole typically costs between R150 000 to R250 000 in total (including testing filtration and treatment). You should also expect to between R400 to R1 800 per month to maintain the system, depending on how it is configured.

  • Are water purification systems worth it?

    Are water purification systems worth it?

    A home water purification system significantly lowers the levels of chlorine, minerals and sediment in your bulk water feed. These filtration systems are also cost-effective, treating water at about 25 cents per litre currently.

Hazards of water solutions

Prof Turton reminds us that water is a life-giving resource, so anything that can creep and crawl and fly and swim will eventually find its way into your water. And there's a famous thing called a rat-tailed maggot, associated with bad, nasty sewage water. But remember that your tanks can give rise to mosquitoes, and importantly, remember the drowning risk.

“Remember that with any change to any system, there's always some unintended consequences.”

Lundberg adds that if you are going the borehole route, to remember that the borehole water changes during summer and winter. “At least test your water, minimum, once a year, to see whether the treatment train that you have in place is still appropriate. And remember, it is not the installers accountability to come and make those changes.

And when you go corporate, when you start providing water and you become a service provider, you're going to get the demand to test the water at least once a month to ensure that the water is good.”

  • Is borehole water safe to drink?

    Is borehole water safe to drink?

    Borehole water usually needs to be treated before it is safe to drink. Untreated borehole water can contain higher levels of dissolved minerals like iron and manganese that need to be softened in order to meet SANS 241 standards of potable water.

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