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Hlengiwe Cele  
 Science turns water threats into opportunities

Are you worried about the safety of tap water? Did you have to evacuate your home during the recent floods? Lost your crops? Does the looming acid mine drainage disaster scare you? Has water supply become a business risk to your organisation?

As populations grow and global living standards rise, we are consuming more water than ever. Industrial activity and carbon emissions are affecting the global climate, resulting in devastating floods and droughts. We are faced with a choice: we either turn the tide or suffer the consequences.

All over the world, scientists are looking for innovative solutions to make industrial processes more water-efficient and less damaging to the environment. New technologies to re-cycle water, remove pollutants and to uncover alternative sources of freshwater are continuously emerging.

The Water Research Commission (WRC), South Africa's custodian of water research, draws on the best and brightest scientists in the country to resolve our water challenges. For the past 40 years, the research outputs of this organisation have been supporting decision making on all aspects of water management.

South Africans are currently very concerned about the damage that acid mine drainage can cause. Over the past 10 years alone, the WRC has completed more than 60 studies on mine water. These studies have shown that the threat can be turned into an opportunity: Water so acidic that it kills wildlife can be successfully treated and re-used, even as safe drinking water.

The patented BioSURE process uses sewage sludge (a waste product from the sewage treatment process) to treat acid mine water. This process has been successfully tested in Ekurhuleni in Gauteng. This technology not only solves mine water pollution, but can potentially save municipalities millions of Rands that would otherwise be spent in sludge disposal costs.

Treated acid mine water is not only potentially drinkable; it could also generate useful industrial materials. Through studies funded by the WRC, water treatment companies developed processes to remove metals and other valuable by-products during the acid water treatment processes. By-products from acid water treatment include gypsum, which is used to manufacture building materials. Twenty (20) houses can be built from the 100 tons of gypsum that the Emalahleni treatment plant produces per day.

Studies funded by the WRC have shown that crops irrigated with gypsieferous mine water can be profitable, environmentally friendly and economically sustainable, especially in areas where there is a shortage of water. "The potato crop irrigated with treated mine water was of the best quality I have ever reaped", said Niel Smith, following a case study in the Emalahleni area, where treated water from the Kleinkopje Coal Mine was used.

It is estimated that approximately 300 abandoned coal mines are responsible for acid mine drainage. An estimated R3 billion is required to treat contaminated water per year. It is therefore essential that mine water is effectively managed throughout a mine's lifetime so that it never becomes a serious threat. The WRC is researching mine water management as a proactive measure.

Also, the Water Research Commission is investing in innovative solutions across all sectors to guide South Africa towards food security, sufficient energy, economic growth and a sustainable environment. To cite a few examples of previous and current projects:

  • A Water Safety Plan, developed by the WRC, provides hands-on assistance to struggling municipalities to run and maintain their water treatment plants.
  • Renewable energy from water has enormous potential. Africa is the most underdeveloped continent with regard to hydropower generation, with only 6% of the estimated potential exploited. South African scientists are researching a process that generates power by supplying water through high-pressure pipes.
  • Food production requires large volumes of water; therefore the challenge is to produce more food with the same quantity, or less water. In 2010, the WRC-funded Water Administration System (WAS) won the international WatSave award for its outstanding achievement in irrigation efficiency. This system was implemented in the largest irrigation scheme in South Africa, Vaalharts, saving 17.5 million cubic metres of water in just one year for other uses.
  • Desalination technology was used to provide water to Sedgefield during the recent drought in the South Western Cape.
  • The WRC's Water Resources Study keeps track of how much surface water and groundwater we have available, currently and over the next 20 or 30 years, building in the variables of climate change, population increase and economic growth.  

 Science can't do it alone. Only through the collective effort of government, scientists, the private sector, and YOU and ME, will we be able to ensure water for all, now and in the future.

Uma sisebenza ndawonye sithola izixazululo.

Working together we find solutions.

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