(This article was first published on 3 February 2018 in the Weekend Argus, a weekly regional newspaper distributed in the Western Cape, South Africa.)

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

The City of Cape Town delayed water desalination projects despite tackling a drought and decreasing surface water, placing locals at risk of water shortages.

The city’s deputy mayor Ian Neilson confirmed this with Weekend Argus yesterday.

When this newspaper asked him why the city’s desalination projects are only underway now, he said: “It was not possible to do so sooner.”

Neilson said this was “due to uncertain rainfall predictions for winter, and the risk of over-capacitating the system at significant cost to the ratepayer.”

“The city started procurement of emergency supply schemes as soon as we had a reasonable idea of what augmentation would be required going into (the current) summer,” he added.

The city is now racing against Day Zero – when taps could run dry on April 16 due to surface water shortages – by building two desalination plants.

Neilson said tenders to establish short-term desalination plants at Monwabisi and Strandfontein were awarded to a joint venture comprising Water Solutions and Proxa.

These two plants are expected to produce water by March. The plants will run for only two years though, not taking into account the long-term challenges of the city’s water security.

Neilson said the city had appointed Quality Filtration Systems to run a third desalination project at the V&A Waterfront.

But at the Cape Town Press Club at the start of this week the national water and sanitation minister Nomvula Mokonyane said she wanted to appoint Umgeni Water to run a desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront.

Neilson said: “Before the minister issued this directive there was already a process in motion to install a desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront and this project is on track to start producing water 2-million litres per day by March.”

This has thrown a spanner in the works, said Neilson.

“The minister’s directive that the city appoint Umgeni Water to install a desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront is now being reassessed. The city plans to engage the department on their proposal so as to clarify some aspects,” he said.

Neilson said this included the “choice of location as before the minister issued this directive, there was already a process in motion to install a desalination plant at the V&A Waterfront, and the land is not owned by the city”.

Neilson said the city also needed to assess exactly how Umgeni would operate, as this was unclear, as well as:

  • whether any environmental impact assessment has been conducted
  • how the operational costs are to be managed
  •        the appointment of Umgeni Water to do the installation, and why a figure of R400-million has been mentioned when we would expect the cost of a 10Ml/day plant to be in the order of R100m

“We believe that we could achieve more for the same value, and wish to negotiate alternative ways to employ such capital to greater effect,” said Neilson.

Weekend Argus asked the national water and sanitation department why Umgeni would charge R400-million when the city’s preferred bidder can charge R100-million. It directed queries to Umgeni.

Umgeni’s board chairwoman Gabsie Mathenjwa did not offer any details.

“Given that the award has yet to be finalised, it will not appropriate at this stage to discuss projected costs associated with establishment of the proposed plant, ancillary costs and estimated cost of operation and management,” she said.

Mathenjwa said Umgeni received a “directive” from Mokonyane on December 11 to “immediately investigate possible interventions that would alleviate the plight of consumers in Cape Town”.

GrahamTek, a Cape Town-based desalination company with projects in Saudi Arabia, said the R100-million figure was more correct than R400-million.

Tom Callaghan, the company’s business developer, said they decided not to tender for the city’s desalination projects because it would run for only two years. He said this was not a long-term solution.

Callaghan said they offered the city a 15-year deal with no capital outlay, which the city refused.

“They say they don’t have the funding. But we said to them they don’t need to pay anything upfront. They have to commit to a contract with us for 15 years and we can sell the water to them at R12 for 1,000 litres,” he said.

“They can recover that from charging (ratepayers) for the water.”

The city did not answer questions about GrahamTek’s offer.

Neilson said they were meanwhile trying to raise an additional R2,1-billion for various water related projects to ensure water security in Cape Town.

“The city has reprioritised some R2,6-billion of our existing annual budget (for water projects),” said Neilson.

The city has met “various financial institutions, especially development funding institutions, which are known to provide concessional funding” to raise “funding up to R2,1-billion for various capital programmes” said Neilson.

He added: “Concessional funding refers to loans that are extended on terms substantially more generous than market loans. Typically, development funding institutions offer interest rates below those available on the market or give grace periods to pay back the money, or a combination of these.”