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Alternatives to coal-fired electricity exist but there are no alternatives for water

By Penny-Jane Cooke

The last quarter of 2015 saw five out of the nine provinces — KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, the North West, including the breadbasket of the country, the Free State — declared as water disaster areas and by extension disaster areas for agriculture. Somehow, the linkages between how the intensive water use for coal-fired electricity exacerbating water scarcity and water poverty, while also contributing to catastrophic climate change (which in turn will increase water insecurity), are not being made.

Every step in the chain of using coal to produce electricity pollutes and consumes vast amounts of water. Together with coal mining, burning coal for electricity generation has a number of serious implications for both water quantity and quality. This is clearly evident in Mpumalanga — home to majority of South Africa’s coal mines — where 46% of South Africa’s total high-potential arable soil competes with coal on a daily basis. The implications of this range from loss of maize production and the associated skyrocketing food costs, to soil degradation and water pollution.

Throughout our history the provision of an adequate supply of water has been one of the key limiting factors in the economic development of South Africa, compounded by issues around equity and access to water. South Africa has a mean annual precipitation that is 50% lower than the global average, and water scarcity is an ongoing significant challenge. The department of water affairs has projected that water demand will exceed supply by 2025, even by its most conservative scenario, unless considerable attention is paid to managing water demand.

Delwyn Verasamy (M&G)
Delwyn Verasamy (M&G)

The El Nino-driven drought currently impacting South Africa has once again brought issues and concerns around water scarcity to the fore. This should be of particular concern for all South Africans because the affected provinces provide the bulk of our staple agriculture in grain, citrus, sugarcane and animal agriculture. A water and food crisis is a recipe for disaster! There are already indications that South Africa is likely to see sharp food price increases. It is therefore essential that South Africa plans for periods of drought and manages water availability and accessibility strategically.

There are few issues that are as deeply interrelated and important for development as the issues of energy and water. Approximately 90% of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal, which is a water-intensive way of producing electricity (aside from the other negative externalities such as health impacts and contribution to climate change). The current situation is that electricity is viewed as a high-value economic use of water, which means the allocation of water to Eskom’s power stations is seen to be strategically important and is prioritised. What this means for South Africans is that even if people face water restrictions and are not able to use water to meet their daily needs, Eskom will have water for washing coal.

It is no secret that South Africa has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, and renewable energy technologies are able to deliver sustainable electricity, while at the same time sustainably reducing the stress on South Africa’s water resources. What the current water crisis has made clear is that we cannot continue doing what we have always done in the face of extreme weather, brought on by climate change. Now is the time to start plotting the just transition away from coal, while safeguarding our existing water through strategically assessing the country’s water resources, and investing in water infrastructure, before it is too late. The ultimate question is why are Eskom and the government not scaling up their ambition to tackle the twin crisis of water scarcity and climate change?

Penny-Jane Cooke is Greenpeace’s Africa climate and energy campaigner.


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  1. Craig Craig 27 March 2016

    Can we have more voices like this please, South Africa?

  2. siempre44 siempre44 27 March 2016

    Climate change is the norm on Earth. Earth has no normal climate but is a chaotic system. You don’t need a strawman excuse to change energy sources. If Renewables are better, they are better. But, if renewables are actually not better, then using climate change as a reason to change to inferior energy reliability is foolish. The climate changes and will change. Some places will be better suited and some worse for people. But turning off electricity makes nothing better.

  3. Rory Short Rory Short 28 March 2016

    I think it is a mindset problem, which is a common human failing, that is allowing those concerned to shelve the part of the problem that they do not see as having anything to do with them. Eskom is about electricity generation and as long as they have enough water to do it that is where their thinking stops. The reality is that everything in the world is inter-related whether we we accept this fact or not and we all know that people who ignore facts end up suffering and creating suffering for others.

  4. Chris2 Chris2 30 March 2016

    Solar and wind can be useful in augmenting baseload electricity generating capability. Properly constructed and maintained coal or nuclear stations each deliver over 90% of installed capacity, the deficit being taken up by routine maintenance. The global track record of wind generated electricity over 25 years is apparently that only one sixth of ‘installed capacity’ was delivered (and for solar panels even less). Add to this the cost of pump storage systems and it becomes clear that alternative systems cannot really compete directly with (or take the place of) baseload systems, even if connected to an ‘intelligent’, spread out distribution network. Of course, grossly inefficient alternative systems built by efficient private enterprise may come out less costly per unit electricity delivered than large coal-fired stations built by an incompetent state authority with politically connected contractors employing an unwilling, strike-prone ‘work’force, but this scenario could never be internationally competitive and is the best recipe for dragging a third world country down even further.

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