Crisis puts waste water treatment under the spotlight

Waste water - []

There are many opportunities for the treatment of waste water in South Africa, but the uptake of these opportunities has been slow, according to Carl Haycock, managing director of Talbot & Talbot, which offers expertise in the provision of sustainable water and wastewater solutions across Africa.

Speaking at a Moneyweb and Standard Bank business breakfast on the state of Western Cape water infrastructure, he said some wastewater, which includes domestic sewage, industrial effluent, mine decant and tailings, storm water runoff and contaminated run off, is treatable, while some is not. But there are significant opportunities around those that are easily treatable.

“Up to now, South African water has been cheap, while relatively recently it has exceeded R10 per cubic metre.” At a higher price, more business opportunities in the waste treatment sector become viable.

“In South Africa, we have a stigma around recycled water. We [his company] have been recovering water in the beverages space for ten years and the client refuses to put that treated water back into the product that we drink. That water is as good as the bottled water we drink and significantly better water than that site is getting from municipalities.”

He argued that the stigma is unnecessary. Last year, KwaZulu-Natal was in a similar position to the Western Cape, with crippling water shortages, and wastewater treatment provided a solution in Ballito, where a water recovery plant was installed and  where “we are now drinking treated sewage”.

Water treatment does, however, come at a cost. Haycock said it requires capex in the region of R10 million for a small industrial plant and in excess of R500 million in the municipal space, and there are opportunities for finance, but it is generally not viewed as a profit-generating business venture.

There are also technological and operational challenges. “Getting the right advice and putting in the right solution is critical,” he said.

There are legislative challenges – if you treat and want to sell wastewater, you have to register as a water provider in order to sell that water on.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially as water charges increase.

In the industrial space, companies can benefit from savings and can get energy from effluent. Distilleries, for example, can provide up to 80% of their energy requirement from effluent.

“Many of our projects sit in the three- to five-year ROI (return on investment). Your project can be quite viable, you have to select the right project, and there is finance available.”

“You can contribute to reducing our water footprint and make it go further,” he said.

Haycock commented that in South Africa, we are talking about desalination before talking about water recovery. “One person’s waste water can be another person’s raw material,” he said.

The country’s water crisis, however, is opening up opportunities and the provinces’ infrastructure to deal with it does not support demand.

Haycock said humans consume two to four litres of water a day. The rest of water usage goes to wastewater, and much of it can be treated. 

“There are challenges, but the technologies are there and we can overcome those challenges. We can do a lot with water.”