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Water is our energy constraint, not coal

Posted by: Saving Water SA (Cape Town, South Africa) – partnered with Water Rhapsody conservation systems – 24 March 2010

Professor Anthony Turton, vice-president of the International Water Resource Association, explains how to beat the water crisis.

The media is abuzz with talk about the developmental state so I have tried to understand this rhetoric in the context of water.

If we think of national economic growth as an “S” curve on a graph, on which the vertical axis represents value and the horizontal axis time, then we can see that early development is slow as technology is mobilised. This manifests as a flat part of the curve. As the economy kicks into overdrive, the curve climbs rapidly, such as happened in South Africa during the latter part of the 20th century. This growth slows down, either because of external constraints, such as reduced global commodity demand, or as a result of internal constraints. It is my hypothesis that the South African economy has reached the upper part of this first “S” curve, of which two limitations are the most apparent from a biophysical perspective.

The first constraint is energy, which we all know about. The second is water, which few of us know about, but which is starting to become manifest in the public domain. Significantly, water is our energy constraint, not coal. It takes 1kg of coal and 1.35kg of water to produce one kilowatt hour of electricity with the technology used by Eskom.

So what are we to do?

The answer lies in the developmental state. This is a rich discourse about a failed policy that needs to be invigorated and so I support the process fully. The failed policy is the one we based our earlier macroeconomic growth on – externalising the costs of mining onto society – so we could have rapid economic growth. What this meant was that the full life-cycle cost of any mine, including environmental remediation in the post-closure phase, was not considered when a mine licence was granted.

In the case of coal, our national addiction to energy meant that we would dig as much of it as we could from the ground to create electricity, which had to be cheap because of the troubled times we were living in during the death throes of the apartheid state. This externalised cost came in the form of sulphur emissions, either as acid rain or as acid mine drainage. Both are seriously detrimental to our national economic prosperity.

Now we have a chance to revisit that debate in the form of the developmental state. The question now becomes, how can we attain the second “S” curve – the developmental state double “S” curve – in order to slingshot our economy into growth that can absorb the masses of unemployed? It is amazing to note that in our last boom period we had 22% unemployment, but now, at the end of a recession, we have 25%.

Why can we not have near-zero unemployment during boom times like any “normal” country?

The way to get that is to understand our fundamental biophysical constraints – water and energy – and no longer pretend that they are insignificant. We have reached the limit of our national water resource so we have nothing left in reserve. The second “S” curve will therefore need to recognise this simple fact – we are at the limits of our national water resource and water scarcity defines our energy platform using current technologies.

This is doable if we accept that water is a flux, moving in time and space, so if we recycle it then we can continue to grow and prosper. How will this be done?

Firstly, we will need to revamp all of our sewage works, removing them from the balance sheet as a cost centre and turning them into revenue generators instead. This will mean new forms of public-private partnerships. It will reduce the pollution loads into our rivers and, if we are clever, will remove phosphate as well. This is good news, because there is a global phosphate scarcity looming and soon it will be rarer than diamond-bearing Kimberlite.

Secondly, we will manage acid mine drainage differently. Instead of trying to sue mine owners for pollution, we should be thankful that they have dug us massive holes in the ground that can be used for strategic storage. If properly managed, this will reduce evaporation losses and increase our national stock of water. Available technology in the form of reverse osmosis and ion exchange means we can manage the detrimental aspects of acid mine drainage with confidence.

Thirdly, we must negotiate with trade unions and implement what I call a dual-stream reticulation system, in which two grades of water would be provided. High-grade water would be piped to domestic areas, lower grade water to newly created industrial development hubs. These would be in areas where mining has stopped and would provide post-mine closure relief for affected communities. The cheaper water would attract beneficiation-type industries, and that would be the foundation of our new economic prosperity.

It can be done. The developmental state – however we choose to define it – is an important new policy initiative that society at large needs to engage with. I believe it is a new opportunity to reach full employment and that second “S” curve. If I had my way, this would be discussed by the newly formed National Planning Commission.

Related articles: Acid rain more important than carbon emissions
Water for the future

2 comments to Water is our energy constraint, not coal

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