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Can desalination save Cape Town from water crisis in nick of time?

16 October 2017 - 17:33 By Aphiwe Deklerk And Farren Collins
Image: iStock

Cape Town will have its first desalination plants working just weeks before the city's dams are expected to dry up.

That’s according to City of Cape Town Informal Settlements‚ Water and Waste Services and Energy mayoral committee member‚ Xanthea Limberg.

“Monwabisi and Strandfontein [plants] are currently scheduled for February 2018‚ but we are exploring opportunities to implement earlier‚ once internal funding issues are resolved‚” Limberg told TimesLIVE.

Mayor Patricia de Lille told the media earlier this month that municipal water supply might run out in March next year‚ if current usage remains the same.

The General Manager of water solutions company Veolia‚ Chris Braybrooke‚ said that completion of tenders for the desalination plants‚ which first went public in August‚ should have taken place six months ago‚ and that the city’s water problem was a “ticking time bomb”.

“We were quite surprised that there was such a long wait for it to go out on formal tenders‚ and then they asked for instant solutions‚” said Braybrooke‚ whose company have built several desalination plants in SA – including the country’s largest one in Mossel Bay. “But for this type of tender‚ this should have happened [at least] six months ago.”

This problem was further exacerbated because maintenance on existing infrastructures was also lacking.

“We’re waiting for the time when citizens will run out of water‚” Braybrooke said. “It is a ticking time bomb and people are scrambling for solutions.”

Limberg said there were initially 17 sites earmarked for desalination plants‚ but the number had since been reduced‚ after some of the sites were ruled out due to being located in coastal protected areas along the peninsula.

The city has recently come under fire for the way it has handled proposals to provide an alternative water supply – from drilling its aquifers and boreholes‚ to building desalination plants.

But senior lecturer and expert in water-sensitive urban design at the University of Cape Town‚ Tom Sanya‚ said that not enough was known about the possible environmental impact from aquifer tapping.

“It’s a very unstable area‚ and it’s possible that once you start tampering with the aquifer beyond a certain tapping point‚ it could activate earthquakes that are even worse than what we have had in the past‚” Sanya said.

MEC for Environmental Affairs in the Western Cape‚ Anton Bredell‚ warned that desalination would not come cheap‚ and that ratepayers would be forced to dig into their pockets to pay for the new technology.

“At the end of the day‚ water is going to be much more expensive. That’s a fact. We will know by how much after the tender process. It’s an argument of expensive water or no water‚” said Bredell.