Water Crisis

DROUGHT SPECIAL #5: Can desalination plants secure Cape Town’s water supply? (+ Cape Town UPDATE)


Day Zero has once again been pushed back, to 4 June from an earlier date of 11 May, reportedly as a result of continued decline in agricultural usage, and reduced consumption by Capetonians. Over the past week urban usage has seen an all-time low average of 526 Ml per day, though targets remain at 450Ml per day with level 6B restrictions still in place. This improvement comes off the back of increased pressure management interventions by the City, and just 8mm of rainfall on Tuesday afternoon which provided a brief respite from the dry conditions.

Cape Town Water Crisis Snapshot:

  • Cape Town’s cumulative dam levels are sitting at 24.6%, down 0.5% from last week
  • The City’s main water source, Theewaterskloof Dam is at just 11.6% capacity, down 0.6% from last week.

Desalination for water security

As seawater accounts for 97% of the Earth’s water, and South Africa boasts a coastline of over 2,500kms, desalination seems to be an obvious solution.

The construction of three temporary desalination plants are underway in an attempt to produce more potable water to supplement the City’s dwindling supplies. Located at the V&A Waterfront, Monwabisi and Strandfontein, these plants are expected to be operational from March 2018, however numerous reports shed doubt on this timeline. Only the V&A site has been confirmed to be on track, and the Monwabisi site is being contested by the local community, who want a bigger stake in the work at the plant. The contracts for the plants were awarded to Water Solutions South Africa-Proxa South Africa Joint Venture, stipulating only 24 months of water supply at the Strandfontein site, after which the equipment will be removed. These plants will provide a combined total of just 18Ml of water per day (less than 4% of current daily urban average water usage). A number of additional desalination tenders are also currently under consideration.

See photos of the construction of a desalination plant in Strandfontein here
(Photo by The Citizen/African News Agency)

As the City’s future water supply remains uncertain many big businesses are taking matters into their own hands to reduce their dependence on municipal water supplies. Companies around the globe are responding to this need, in particular JSE-listed investment companies PSG Group (PSG) and Universal Partners (UP), looking geared to make huge profits from the water deficit in the region.

Investments in South Africa

Cape Town desalination and water purification company GrahamTek, a subsidiary of PSG has secured a R5bn contract to build a plant in Saudi Arabia by The Saline Water Conversion Corporation, which operates several water treatment plants across Saudi Arabia. Grahamtek is now turning its sights more locally, to Cape Town. Adjudications are still underway, but the company has bid for contracts to supply desalination plants for the city, claiming that their reverse osmosis technology is ideally suited for the Cape Town environment. Other South African companies are also in this space:

  • State power utility Eskom announced that it has launched a mobile groundwater desalination plant in Koeberg to secure its own potable water needs
  • Oceana, the largest fishing company in Africa is spending R20m on two desalination plants in St Helena Bay and Laaplek to meet its water needs and secure jobs for its employees
  • Tsogo Sun, a premier hotel and entertainment group plans to build a desalination plant to independently supply their hotels and casinos in Cape Town.

Investments worldwide

UP has invested in positive-pressure flushing toilet specialist Propelair who’s customers include McDonalds and Barclays. In November, Propelair presented its products to the largest property owners in Cape Town looking in a bid to secure contracts across major office buildings and shopping centres to supply water-efficient toilets.


While planning and investment will put the City in a better position to deal with the water crisis and lay foundations for greater resilience to such conditions in the future, small businesses are increasingly relying on expensive grey water and rain harvesting systems, and remain exposed to the volatility of municipal supplies.

Moreover, the swift movement towards desalination as a means of securing water should incite a questioning of the process and its social, economic and environmental impacts. For example, how will energy requirements be met, how will mineral inputs for drinking water be acquired? what are the effects of desalination plant discharges on ocean and groundwater ecosystems? Rapid investment in desalination potentially signals a worrying trend for quick-fix solutions, where the unintended consequences and the true benefits of the technology and its processes must be considered.  

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By: Beryl Visser

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