It’s a simple truth: water is fundamental to life, we can’t live without it. The problem, though, is that water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource; one South Africa is running short of.
By 2030 it’s expected that our demand for water will outstrip what’s available by a staggering 17%. Already more than 98% of our water has been allocated to different water users  – and yet our economy and population continues to grow.
Water prices are set to climb, climate change will surely impact on rain distribution, and competition for dwindling water resources is likely to escalate, possibly leading to conflict. We are already seeing water-related service-delivery protests around the country , and today almost a million households still have no access to the minimum 25 litres of water a day .
Sure, we’ve faced water shortages and droughts in the past; water scarcity is nothing new for South Africa. As it is, this country has rainfall levels far below the global average. But as climate change takes hold, and South Africa continues to grow, the water challenge we face will be measured on a completely new scale.
Greenpeace Africa has just launched a report that reveals Eskom’s role in the depletion of our water resources, and it’s directly tied to coal-fired electricity. 93% of our electricity is generated from burning coal, which creates significant social, economic and environmental risks – and now the severe implications for our water resources are also much clearer.
If you crunch the numbers, Eskom’s water use works out to 10 000 litres a second – even Eskom’s so-called “water-efficient” coal plants will use 2.9 million litres an hour.
If on top of those staggering amounts of water, one includes the water footprint of coal mining, then the amount of water being used in coal-fired electricity generation is numbing. We are quite literally burning our rivers to power our homes.
What’s important here is that this water use is linked to coal power in particular; it’s not inherent to electricity production in general. Shift away from coal power, and we save water – start moving to renewable energy and we’ll keep the lights on, generate new jobs and keep the water running.
In 2011, Greenpeace published a study that attempted to establish the full costs of Eskom’s Kusile coal-fired power plant. When building something like Kusile, there are the plant’s official costs, and then there are a number of very real, significant, costs that are just left off the balance sheet – water pollution, human health impacts and carbon emissions, for example. The report found that these costs add up to between R31 billion and R60 billion a year – and a whopping 70% of those costs were water-related.
The point is that economists, Eskom, and our government keep telling us that coal power is the cheapest way to power our country. But coal is anything but cheap, particularly when you take into account its hidden costs, water being one of the most important.
Talking about water isn’t “just” an environmental issue, it’s about social justice, food security and basic human rights. Consider, for example, that the amount of water Eskom currently uses in one day, is enough water to grow a million kilograms of maize .
If our government is serious about development and providing for all South Africans, then it can’t simply trade off electricity generation against so many other development issues – especially when there are other viable ways to generate electricity that don’t force us to make impossible trade-offs.
There are real alternatives to coal power, but there are no alternatives to water.
This blog was written with the very kind help of Melita Steele, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa.
 Turton, A. 2008. CSIR Keynote address: Three Strategic Water Quality Challenges that Decision-Makers Need to Know About and How the CSIR Should Respond. CSIR Report No. CSIR/NRE/WR/EXP/2008/0160/A. Available online: http://www.environment.co.za/documents/water/KeynoteAddressCSIR2008.pdf.
 Bhagwan, J. 2012. Press Release: Water scarcity – an unresolved issue in many parts of the country leads to protests over service delivery. Water Research Commission. Available online: http://www.wrc.org.za/News/Pages/Waterscarcity%E2%80%93anunresolvedissueinmanypartsofthecountryleadstoprotestsoverservicedelivery.aspx.
 Molewa, E. 2012a. Speech by the Honourable Edna Molewa, Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs on the occasion of the Budget Vote for Water Affairs, Parliament: “Water is life – Respect it, Conserve it, Enjoy it’. Available online: http://www.info.gov.za/speech/DynamicAction?pageid=461&sid=27434&tid=68254.
 Maize requires 900 litres of water per kilogram. Eskom’s water use per day = 865 753 424 litres.
865 753 424/900 = 961,948 kg of maize