Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay plan raises fears over water war
Rio Tinto's massive R6.5bn investment in a new mining project south of Richards Bay has cheered the business community, but it has also refocused concern about a looming shortage of water in one of the country's biggest industrial hubs.
A recent strategic assessment of future Richards Bay water supplies by the Aurecon consultancy group found that significant interventions — such as new dams or pipeline transfer schemes from distant rivers — could be needed as early as next year if the city is unable to reduce existing water consumption.
The 2015 Aurecon scenarios report also raised the possibility that three major industrial hubs (Durban, Gauteng and Richards Bay) could soon be fighting each other over who gets to use water from the strategically important Thukela River.
"The strategic importance of the future allocation of water from the Thukela River must be considered in a broader, national strategic perspective," it suggests, noting that three major dam projects in the upper reaches of this river have been earmarked to supply water to the Gauteng industrial area via transfers to the Vaal River.
Lower down on the Thukela River there is also competing demand from Richards Bay and from Umgeni Water to supply the growing demand north of Durban.
Aurecon notes that big water supply projects have long lead times and some might need to be fast-tracked given that several major industries in Richards Bay require a reliable water supply.In the wake of a crippling regional drought, Richards Bay built a R300m sea-water desalination plant in 2017 to provide an extra 10Mlof water a day to local residents and industries.This week, Rio Tinto announced funding approval for the next stage of mining construction at its subsidiary, Richards Bay Minerals (RBM), SA's largest mineral sands producer and beneficiation company.For more than four decades RBM has been producing rutile, zircon, titania slag and high-purity iron from mineral ores in the Tisand and Zulti North lease areas, which extend northwards from Richards Bay to the southern boundary of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.But with the most viable mineral deposits now in decline, the company will start shifting mining operations southwards to Zulti South, a 20km strip of coastline between Richards Bay and Port Durnford in the south.Rio Tinto said the first phase of construction should start by midyear, subject to the granting of all necessary permits, with the first commercial production expected late in 2021.Responding to queries on the source and volume of water supplies needed for the new Zulti South mine, RBM said water would be drawn from the Mhlathuze River catchment by agreement with Mhlathuze Water.RBM and Mhlathuze Water both stated that no new water impoundments or dams would be built to meet the estimated demand of 28,000m² of water a day at Zulti South.But RBM did not respond to requests to provide figures on how this new demand compares to current demand in the Zulti North area, which relies largely on water from neighbouring coastal lakes.According to Aurecon's calculations, RBM and Mondi are the single biggest water users in Richards Bay.Collectively, they used about 49% of total water supplies in the Mhlatuze region, and Tronox and Foskor used another 15%.Aurecon said there were about 380,000 people living in Richards Bay, Empangeni, Ngwelezane, Esikhaleni and Nseleni using almost 40-million cubic metres of water each year, while local industries use about 70-million cubic metres each year.The 2015 Aurecon report, prepared for the department of water affairs to guide water provision up to 2040, looked at five scenarios for Richards Bay - ranging from low and medium demand to a worst-case scenario based on high growth amplified by global climate change.Even under the lowest-growth scenario, the report predicted shortfalls of nearly 2-million cubic metres a year by 2040, while the high-growth scenario predicted a massive 115-million cubic metres shortfall by 2040.As a result, decisions about significant water augmentation would be needed by 2022 under a medium-growth scenario, while a high-growth scenario would require augmentation as early as 2020.Raising the height of the Goedetrouw Dam could provide some additional water in the short term, but the most significant future options include either new dams or impoundments on the Thukela and Mfolozi rivers — or a major move to desalination.Desalination had the potential to deliver very significant volumes (including 100% reliability of supply during drought), but this would have to be balanced against the high operational and energy costs of the desalination process.Announcing the new RBM investment this week, Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sbastien Jacques said: "Rio Tinto has a long history in SA, and [this] investment underscores our commitment for the coming decades and beyond. Zulti South is one of the best undeveloped minerals sand deposits in the industry and will significantly extend RBM's position as a world-class, first-quartile asset."