Water Treatment in South Africa


South Africa faces several problems with ensuring that its water resources are clean and plentiful enough for use. For example, there is a growing problem of toxicity of South Africa’s water resources due to increased bacterial growth, including Escherichia coli, Aeromonas, Pseudomonas, Salmonella, Shigella and Vibrio spp [1]. The quantity of bacteria found in 2010 was more than five times the amount that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends [2]. This pathogenic amount of bacteria causes intestinal deterioration, bacterial diarrhea, arthritis, and severe kidney disease [1]. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is also a huge contributor to South Africa’s toxic water. In the last 100 years, more than 120 mining companies have left large tailings dumps, which have been spilling uranium, sulfides, low-grade ores, and other heavy metals. [3]. Since many of the tailings dumps resulted from gold mining, the toxicity from uranium has been a big issue. In 2002, surface water in South African lakes had 40,000 times the natural level of uranium in freshwater, and this is still a problem today [4]. With uranium exposure so high, people are prone to kidney disease and cancer [5].

In addition, rural municipalities lack efficient and effective water cleaning facilities, causing rural areas to not have enough potable water. The small water treatment plants need improvements in their communication and water transfer systems to function at a higher level of efficiency. As of 2005, 60 percent of rural South Africa has been affected by waterborne illnesses.

South Africa also faces challenges with water management and mining. South Africa is the fourth largest mining nation in the world [6]. It is the source of 70 percent of the world’s platinum, and also is a large supplier of gold, diamonds, and other minerals [7]. Mining, however, uses large amounts of water, and because of this, the South African government has limited the amount of water that can be used in the mining industry. From 2011 to 2012, South African mines reduced output by 15 percent [8].

Growing water resource toxicity

Recently, there has been a large growth in biofilm coliforms – layers of bacteria – in South Africa’s water resources. During an eight-month study in 2010 in Limpopo, Africa, water containers had excessive biofilm coliforms. To be safe for consumption, water should have no more than 200 coliform colonies per 100mL, but the actual amount present was more than five times the safe amount [2]. The bacterial growth occurs during the transport of water through pipes and into the households of the people.

Mission 2017 suggests that South Africa should make major modifications to its water distribution systems using pipes. The most cost-effective method of distributing water will depend on the population density. The eastern parts of the nation, including the provinces of Northern Transvaal, Kwa-Zulu Natal, and Eastern Transvaal, are most densely populated. For these areas, it would be more effective for them to have centralized water distribution systems. These centralized water distribution systems would be handled by Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), which put a private operator in charge of building and maintaining the distribution system. The benefit of this would be that the local government will only need to set the guidelines for keeping the pipes clean, and the private operator will be responsible for meeting the guidelines. The provincial governments will have contracts with the IFC (International Finance Corporation, an organization affiliated with the World Bank) or NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), and will distribute the funds to the PPPs to manage the pipes. The projects will be medium-scale, since the highly populated parts of South Africa are not very large. The cost of implementation will be around $15 per person initially for each centralized water treatment distribution system. To make sure that the pipes are clean, the PPPs will disinfect the pipes monthly using chlorine.

Western provinces of South Africa, such as Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape, will need to employ different water distribution systems. Since these regions are more sparsely populated, it will be more expensive to maintain a very large centralized water distribution system between these communities. Therefore, communities in these regions should have their own decentralized water distribution systems. There are several options for decentralized water distribution systems including wells, pumps, and rainwater collection tanks. The local governments will decide which system they want, and community members will be employed to maintain the water systems. Funding will come from NGOs and local businesses. Similar to the PPPs in the eastern part of the nation, the community members will use chlorine to prevent the water from being contaminated.

This will be implemented in the next five to ten years, since forming the PPPs in the communities may take three years, and then reconstructing and fixing the water distribution systems may take another two or three years. Contracts between the local governments and private operators will last anywhere from five to 25 years, depending on the degree of construction.

Acid mine drainage (AMD) is another source of water toxicity. Acid mine drainage is the outflow of water from old, abandoned mines. This contamination has been gradually increasing around multiple dams, such as the Middelburg, Witbank, and Boesmanspruit Dam. A case study conducted in January 2012 looked specifically at the acid mine drainage with the Boesmanspruit Dam, which supplies potable water to the town of Carolina. Chemical analyses from the study showed that during an unusually heavy downpour, tailings ponds containing coalmine runoff overflowed and water contaminants (iron, manganese, and aluminum) flowed into the reservoir behind the dam [9]. These minerals oxidize and greatly lower the water’s pH, resulting in serious biological side effects. Because over 120 major mining companies have worked in the region over the last 100 years, there are many abandoned mines throughout the nation, and therefore there are many sources of acid mine drainage.

South Africa currently has two solutions to this problem. The first is the capping and sealing openings in the mines and monitoring already-contaminated water. Capping and sealing openings prevents flow of toxic water out of the mines. For already-contaminated water, efforts will be made to first neutralize the water through removing heavy metals, and then desalinize the water with chemical treatment [3]. The second is the PUMP (passive underground mine-water purification) system. This system utilizes geo-bio-engineering models with modern technology to reduce sulfate concentrations and increase the pH of water. The projected cost of this plan is 360 billion Rand, or $35.5 billion [10]. South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs, however, currently only has $33 million for funding the project [3].

Mission 2017 suggests that South Africa should instead use passive treatment, as it is a more cost-effective way to solve the acid-mine drainage problem. Passive treatment makes use of already-existing biological and chemical processes. Constructing wetlands near the abandoned mines can be used to mitigate the effects of acid mine drainage. This consists of flooded gravel, soil, organic matter, and wetland plants. When mine water collects in these “wetlands,” the plants oxidize heavy metals and they settle out. Another type of constructed wetland includes a layer of limestone in the organic sediments. This is used to neutralize the acid mine drainage. The cost of implementing this will be $15 for every square meter of wetlands constructed. Constructing two million square meters of wetland will still cost less than South Africa’s current solution described in the previous paragraph. This is because each efficiently constructed wetland will have an area of 2500 square meters [11], and if South Africa deals with the acid mine drainage of mines from the last 100 years, South Africa will need to invest around $5 million into constructing the wetlands. This money will come from the South African government’s Department of Water Affairs, because it has already allocated $33 million into mitigating the effects of acid mine drainage. There will most likely be social implications of pursuing this method of acid mine drainage treatment. People’s surroundings will definitely change to include more biodiversity from the constructed wetlands. The population of mosquitoes and other nuisance organisms will not grow to concerning levels, however. According to a study conducted in southern Sweden, there are fewer mosquitoes present in constructed wetlands than in natural wetlands [12]. In addition, Mission 2017 suggests that the people of the communities decide where wetlands are constructed, as long as they are located where mine water drains. In addition, the leftover money of the government’s $33 million budget can be used towards maintaining the wetlands, compensating the communities, and funding other water management projects.

Faulty rural water management system

In order to improve water quality management, South Africa administered a program in 2009 in which local municipalities monitored and managed water quality policies based on international standards. Under this system, urban municipalities improved their water quality while rural municipalities faced opposite results.  A research team from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Civil Engineering conducted a case study to figure out why this was happening. The results of the study showed that the decentralization of water quality monitoring is what caused the rural water quality to decline rather than to improve. The study concluded that this was due to the lack of communication and information flow between the rural municipalities [13].

Mission 2017 suggests that using the Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) in rural areas will solve the water management problems. The solution to this problem ties into the solution to the problem of bacterial coliforms in water distribution systems. By maintaining a decentralized water system in the rural areas, South Africa will be distributing water more cost-effectively. The PPPs will ensure that there is no miscommunication between rural municipalities. The local governments will be in charge of making sure that the private operator maintains the water distribution system.

Mining and water management

South Africa is ranked as one of the most important mining nations in the world. South Africa contains 50 percent of the world’s gold reserves and is responsible for one-third of the world’s gold exports [14]. In addition, South Africa holds 80 percent of the world’s manganese reserves and 68 percent of the world’s chromium reserves [15]. Water is essential for mining. By extrapolating data from a study conducted in the United States, it is safe to assume that a large amount of potable water is used for mining in South Africa The study showed that in the United States in 2005, groundwater accounted for roughly 60 percent of water used for mining and 83 percent of the surface water used was fresh water [16]. In addition to the large amounts of water required, water used in mining can be heavily impacted by pollution. Currently, South Africa’s government has reduced the amount of water available for mining, which has decreased mining output. Because mining accounts for almost 20 percent of South Africa’s GDP and provides one million jobs [8], this has impacted the nation’s economy. The METSI Project – management system for the implementation of environmentally sound water supply technologies – aims to address the large water usage and water pollution that result from mining. The project consists of 25 German and South African companies that propose the following objectives and solutions:

  • Develop mathematical models to consolidate data to help predict mining water amount and quality [6].
  • Involve all parties and stakeholders, and take all interests into consideration [6].
  • Address water and water management, mining and use of resources, sustainability, and social development [6].
  • Overall emphasize large-scale mine rehabilitation with comprehensive planning, with a balance of all interests and by applying proven methods [6].

The METSI Project’s objectives are in parallel with Mission 2017’s objectives, but the Project has neither proposed any concrete solutions nor made any significant impacts. Mission 2017 suggests that the METSI Project should follow its objectives while also proposing a cap and trade program  to the South African government. This will allow free trade of water permits amongst the mining companies, which will keep all stakeholders and mining companies satisfied. If mining companies are using less water than what is allocated to them, they can sell their unused permits to other companies. This will limit the amount of water used for mining by incentivizing companies to use less water, and hence, there will be less pollution due to mining as well. To implement this, the South African government will create a committee of government officials and economists who will set the cap slightly lower than society’s ideal level of pollution, which can be calculated with economic models. Then, this committee will constantly monitor the water usage and pollution levels of each company, and will adjust the cap as needed. This plan can be enacted within the next five years, as the MESTI Project’s existence will help accelerate implementation.


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