Africa, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, The Southern Africa Water Wire, Water & Sanitation

SOUTH AFRICA: Wastewater Is a Resource

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - South Africa faces chronic water shortages, yet billions of litres are flushed away every year. Being one of the driest countries in the world, the conservation of water resources and managing wastewater should be a top priority for government.

In its 2008 Living Planet Report, which included a special chapter on water consumption, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said that water shortage is a genuine threat as 98 percent of the country’s water resources are already fully utilised. South Africa’s rainfall is almost 400 mm below the worldwide average of 860 mm a year.

The situation will worsen because of increased water demands and usage due to the expansion of both the economy and the population. In its report, the WWF estimates that by the year 2025 South Africa will have a water deficit of 1.7 percent.

One of the provinces expected to be badly affected is Gauteng, South Africa’s economic heart. Population growth, the mining industry and high levels of industrial activity will combine to produce water shortages in the region anytime from 2013.

Although the majority of South Africans do have access to water, figures by the South African Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) show that in 2008, five million people – ten percent of the country’s population – lacked adequate water supplies.

One of the ways to protect and conserve water is to focus on the recycling of waste water, according to water experts gathered in Cape Town for a water seminar in May.

The event was attended by water experts from Europe and South Africa and formed part of an economic and political mission of the Dutch governmental delegation comprising of minister of Development Cooperation Bert Koenders and deputy minister of Foreign Trade Frank Heemskerk.

"We should change our mindsets about wastewater," said Brendon Meulman, project manager at Landustrie, a Dutch company that specialises in wastewater management. "We should stop seeing it as waste and a burden, but rather as a resource. A lot can be done with wastewater."

"Toilet water for instance, is rich in organic material," he explained. "If the concentration of this so-called black water is high enough, you can create energy out of this organic material. You can also turn it into compost and fertiliser."

The system works as follows. While the urine is channeled away, the solid waste is stored in a separate wind-ventilated chamber where it is air-dried.

"The eventual result is pathogen-free human waste, which can be used as manure for vegetable gardens," Meulman noted. "It can also be used as fuel, for instance to make fires."

Apart from reducing the amount of wastewater and waste, the system does not require water to flush excrement. Similar systems are already in operation in South Africa, for instance in Durban were thousands of dry toilets have been installed.

"We work with so-called vacuum toilets that are already used on cruise ships," he told IPS. "This type of toilet uses approximately one litre of water and 100 litres of air per flush. With this, you are saving many litres of water per person per day."

On average, flushing a toilet uses ten to 12 litres of water. "According to our calculations, a vacuum toilet saves 36 litres of water per person per day," said Meulman. "That is over 25 percent of your daily total water consumption."

According to Meulman, this technology is not applicable only in high-income countries. "We have developed a low tech version which is specifically meant to service informal settlements and squatter camps," he explained. "It is a self-contained system that is not dependent on energy sources. It basically comprises of a container that is equipped with toilets and urinals, which are vandalism proof, hygienic and clean."

Developing new technologies to save, conserve, and recycle water is crucial in solving South Africa’s water problems, says Lungile Dhlamini, director of Cape Town’s water services department. "Sewage is part of us, if we want it or not. We need to look how we can treat wastewater in a more efficient way."

The chances of the vacuum toilet system solving South Africa’s water problems are slim, as government figures show that domestic consumption accounts for just 12 percent of all water used in South Africa. Industry, mining, and power generation together consume another 12.5 percent and agricultural irrigation accounts for around 52 percent the country's water use.

"We are not trying to save the world, but we do want to save and conserve water. And that is exactly what we are doing," said Meulman. "Not only informal settlements, but regular households can also be equipped with a similar system."

Koenders emphasised that it is not only toilet water that needs to be looked at. "The country’s water problems are further impacted by the fact that mines are contaminating rivers and other water bodies," he told IPS.

"And according to local media reports, waste water is dumped on a regular basis. These and other matters can result in tremendous health issues. Better water management, purification, recycling, and conservation could provide an answer to the problem, as at the moment the country faces a shortage of water."

The problems mentioned by Koenders were key focal points of a 2008 report presented by South Africa’s National Nuclear Regulator. The publication predicted serious problems with the country's water supply, including radioactive pollution and waste dumping. It also suggested that wastewater from mines was seeping into the country’s groundwater.

The water and forestry department however, denied a looming water crisis. In a statement, forestry and water affairs minister Lindiwe Hendricks said that South Africa’s drinking water quality was rated among the best in the world.

Marius Keet, Director of Water Quality Management of Forestry and Water Affairs of the Gauteng province said he stands behind his department analysis, although he acknowledges the problem.

"Indeed, due to mining and other human activities, the water quality is affected in some parts of the country," he said. "But it is not a crisis. It is a challenge, that needs to be addressed."

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