In the article “Eskom, Sasol sound warning over water supply”, published on March 18 2012, it is made clear that a big drought in the Vaal River catchment could jeopardise the region’s agricultural and industrial output. But because Eskom and Sasol are “strategic water users” their use of water would not be curtailed. The same cannot be said for everyone else.

Interestingly, Eskom and Sasol are among South Africa’s biggest emitters. More than 90% of Eskom generated electricity comes from burning coal while Sasol contributes substantially to the country’s emission levels by transforming coal to oil. As a result, the two are among South Africa’s largest contributors to climate change. And it is climate change that will have a massive impact on South Africa’s water situation by creating more extreme weather events, including more droughts and floods. It is incredibly ironic then, that two of the biggest contributors to climate change, Eskom and Sasol, are not only issuing warnings about water shortages, but are also going to be least affected by the water impacts they cause in the country.

Eskom is also building what will be two of the biggest coal-fired power stations in the world (Medupi and Kusile), because the utility argues that coal is ‘the cheapest source of electricity’, and these stations are ‘needed to keep the lights on’. It is estimated that Kusile will use 26.15 million m3 of water per year – a massive cost that is not adequately reflected in the cost of the power station. According to The True Cost of Coal report[1] published by Greenpeace in 2011, 70% of the power station’s hidden costs are created by the opportunity cost of the water that Kusile will use. That means that for the estimated R61 billion in hidden costs for the power station, over R40-billion comes just from water use. South Africans will be the ones to pay the bill, either through more electricity price hikes, or through taxes. And it is users other than Eskom who will pay the price over and over again, if this country starts facing a water crisis in the next decade, as is predicted.

Eskom consistently argues that its latest coal-fired power stations will use the newest dry-cooling technology, which will mean that they will use less water than the older wet-cooling technology. But it is only technically true that Eskom will be “producing more electricity using less water”. The problem is that Medupi and Kusile will be so massive, that they are going to have massive water use requirements, in areas that are already water-poor.For each unit of electricity produced, Kusile will use 173 times more water than wind power would use, and more than double what solar power would use.

Coal is clearly anything but cheap. Investing in coal has failed to supply an estimated three million households with electricity, and the massive tariff increases facing South Africans today are going towards building coal-fired power stations that are affecting people’s health, using up our water resources and polluting our environment. Continuing to invest in coal is going to cost the people of this country dearly. A long term vision is needed, one that takes urgent steps towards protecting South Africa from a full blown water crisis. Clearly, Eskom must quit its chronic addiction to coal, and begin investing in renewable energy instead.

There is still time to change the kind of future this country faces. Kusile does not have to be built, and the billions of Rands being invested in coal should instead be invested in renewable energy like wind and solar, which would use less water, put an end to South Arica’s dirty dependency on coal, and create more jobs.

The choices that are made today will have a profound impact on how much water we will have in the future. And as climate change becomes a reality before our very eyes, the decisions from the past are already starting to come back to haunt us. It is clearly time to do things differently.

Melita Steele is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Africa


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