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Eskom’s water accountability

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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  1. Judith Judith 5 April 2012

    We are so close to genocide from these moves that it beggars belief. Water and food security are non-existent. Our water, air and land is being subjected to intensive and on-going pollution which results in health problems, starvation and morbidity.

    We are using the most toxic solutions to feed the greed of the few and wipe out the rest of us. Nuclear and uranium mining and enrichment will only increase the toxic loads and the casual genocide being inflicted on the poorest of the poor as well as the rest of us.

  2. Skerminkel Skerminkel 5 April 2012

    Despite your dislike of Eskom and Sasol, you should be glad that they at least support the effort to make the public/government aware of the risk of drought in the Vaal catchment.

  3. The Creator The Creator 5 April 2012

    The trouble is that for the next couple of decades we will be dependent upon fossil fuels. Therefore we will be dependent on the coal-fired power plants and on petrol. Therefore, in turn, we will need to provide the power plants and synfuel plants with the water they need to cool themselves. Therefore, this article, superficially green, is actually just a silly attempt to distract attention from the urgent need to conserve water on all fronts, rather than wishing the issue away by blaming polluters whose activities cannot be stopped for a long time.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 6 April 2012

    The Troubles in the world are dependence on Oil, Oil Companies and the OPEC Cartel.

    Everything else is insignificant, including dependence on fossil fuels.

    There is lots of water – 75 percent of the planet is water.

  5. MLH MLH 6 April 2012

    @Beddy: that doesn’t put the water where it is most needed for human consumption. In effect, SA’s government is increasing the numbers of ‘the poorest of the poor’ in our country, without even considering oil prices.

  6. Andrew Bee Andrew Bee 7 April 2012

    There are potential solutions to coal power. Read up about LFTR or Thorium which is infinetly superior to Uranium nuclear power. Thorium has the potential to be a game changer and provide unlimited cheap power for a hundred thousand years

  7. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 8 April 2012

    All nuclear needs is coastal land next to ocean – which we have in abundance, in tsumami free, volcano free, eathquake free, unpopulated desert.

    And Andrew is correct – Thorium instead of Uranium produces the same power with no nuclear threat.

    But that is the last thing that the Oil Companies and OPEC want you to believe.

  8. Jacques Jacques 12 April 2012

    Give your opinion about eskom at and see if the rest of South Africa agrees with you

  9. Expzionz Expzionz 13 April 2012

    Imagine if Eskom decided to switch off all their coal fired Power station, I wonder what are we going to use to manufacture all the Solar panels and wind turbines.

  10. Ladnar Ladnar 22 January 2013

    A Greenpeace lobbyist writes about energy and renewable energy? Please. Firstly, a lot of the water requirements will be recycled. And if the Greenpeace precious IT shutdown because of a lack of power, how will they ever lobby.

    Back to facts. Where will all the wind turbines be located. If you live in the western cape, you would know that there is rarely a day when all of the test mills are turning all at once. Where will th solar be situated? In Uppington? Good luck with that. Sasol has steadily reduced their emissions by employing natural gas. Shalegas and a 100 000 bpd GTL plant could free us from foreign oil for decades. Perhaps enough time to investigate real alternatives like geothermal energy and tnorium nuclear energy, which coupled to a CTL plant could reduce CO2 emissions to levels associated with GTL.

    Yes we alternatives and yes we need it soon, butntechnology is advancing so quickly, that in a relatively short time to come we will see significant changes in emissions and water use from our big energy producers.

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