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'There is no excuse for relying on one manufacturer': Race to supply chlorine to treat SA's drinking water

21 January 2022 - 15:28
Liquid gas chlorine is used by water boards and large municipalities to treat water to drinking standards. Stock photo.
Liquid gas chlorine is used by water boards and large municipalities to treat water to drinking standards. Stock photo.
Image: 123rf/Marinos Karafyllidis

SA's key supplier of liquid gas chlorine — used by water boards and municipalities to bring water to drinking standard — is hoping to start ramping up delivery of the critical ingredient again by Sunday.

That was the word from the department of water and sanitation on Friday, which said production — which was severely disrupted over the past week — had now risen to 85%.

There are concerns that the disruptions could affect the ability of municipalities to provide clean drinking water to residents.

“The information they gave us this morning is that they are running at 85% production.  Chlorine levels are healthy — they are just trying to work through the backlog — and the plant is stable, so there shouldn’t be a problem. They think that they should be able to start delivering from Sunday morning,” said department spokesperson Sputnik Ratau.

The Mangaung metro municipality warned on Tuesday that it was experiencing water supply challenges due to the non-supply of chlorine from supplier NPC Chlorchem. The municipality said Maselspoort and Welbedacht water treatment plants were under stress due to high demand.

NPC Chlorchem, the supplier based in Kempton Park, Gauteng, alerted customers on January 18 to problems with the reliability of machinery and other factors which had affected its ability to manufacture at full capacity.

“Though the manufacturing rate has been maintained at about 50% of capacity, coupled with the fact that SA is experiencing a shortage of chlorine molecules, NPC has not been able to meet all the market demand,” it said.

Teams were working around the clock to restore manufacturing capacity to previous levels.

On Thursday, the Mangaung municipality said it was using granular chlorine as an alternative to chlorine gas. Spokesperson Qondile Khedama said on Friday that water had been restored to a number of areas and engineers had reported the restoration level at 95%.

Benoit Le Roy, CEO of the South African Water Chamber, said the manufacturer was the largest in the country.

Maybe this crisis is good because it reinforces that we need to change the way we do things.
Benoit Le Roy, SA Water Chamber CEO

“There are some smaller ones, but they are the large one. Everybody is relying on one manufacturer and it has two problems — both government-induced,” he said.

The first is power failures and the second is raw material shortages because of the Durban port blockages, he said.

“There are big delays in all our ports. It’s lack of government infrastructure that is causing problems with manufacturing output and everybody relies on one manufacturer.

“In the water sector, we advised the government many years ago that they should be decentralising and producing a lot of the chlorine on-site. You bring in salt, and that salt is available from the Northern Cape as raw material and from Botswana, so you don’t necessarily have to import it. You generate salt at the point of requirement, at the waterworks themselves.”

He said the government had unfortunately been slow to embrace that strategy.

“I have been involved in some of the projects but nothing has materialised. What will happen now is that probably municipalities and water boards will start looking at doing their own on-site generation of chlorine.”

Le Roy said there was no excuse for relying on one manufacturer in any large country.

“Maybe this crisis is good because it reinforces that we need to change the way we do things.”

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