The strain on SA’s water resources – following the drought
– has placed more pressure on industry, including miners


Water crises were recognised as the top global long-term risk in 2016 for business. And for South Africans, it’s been especially in focus following the extremely debilitating drought that has ravaged huge parts of the country. Faced with bone-dry conditions and water restrictions, many people have been acutely aware of the apt slogan: ‘every drop counts’.

It’s also a challenge we’ll be facing for many years to come. According to the University of Cape Town’s Future Water research institute, SA is among countries where water demand is set to increase by 280% over a 25-year period, from 2005 to 2030. The Water Research Commission adds that SA could be heading for a water deficit of as much as 1.1 billion m3 by 2035, unless there are more efforts to save water.

With the mining industry being a major consumer of water, companies are under pressure to ensure they use water more efficiently. SA mines are required to reduce their water use in terms of the government’s water conservation and water demand management strategy. But while mining companies have had a bad rap in the past for poor management of water, many have transformed and gone beyond their obligations to conserve water.

Some mines have set up their own water treatment plants, which have made them less reliant on municipal water. This is also starting to have a ripple effect on the communities around them, which now have access to clean potable water.


The coal industry, under pressure to cut down on its high use of water, has found ways to manage the resource more effectively. At Exxaro’s Matla water treatment plant project in Mpumalanga, a R250 million water treatment plant has been set up. It’s part of the company’s strategy to reduce, reuse and recycle water. The plant treats 10 megalitres of water a day. Two-thirds of this is discharged into the Olifants river, while the rest is used in the operations at Matla or for drinking water at the mine.

Also in Mpumalanga, South32 Energy Coal treats mine-affected water and then discharges the clean water into a natural river system. The water is used downstream to support communities, while a small amount is pumped to the Middelburg Colliery chlorination plant.

In the platinum sector, Anglo American Platinum saved 16% of water and recycled nearly 392 million m3 of water in 2015 through its partnership with the Rustenburg Water Services Trust. The mine uses treated sewage effluent in its operations. It also set up a waste treatment plant to improve the quality of the treated sewage water and installed pipelines to boost water use.

The Water Research Commission has been encouraged by the openness of mining and consulting companies that are committed to tackling the challenges around water. Mining companies have contributed valuable data for use in a mine water atlas, which will map water resources in SA’s nine provinces, with the aim of helping mines to better manage and protect water.

However, this is not enough. While it’s been a sluggish year for the economy, mining companies can’t afford to slack off on the water front. If the global economy starts to improve and commodities gather momentum, the industry will be under pressure to ramp up production, with the tandem effect of increasing demands for water.

It’s in the interests of mining companies to think more creatively about their water consumption and – coupled with the use of technology – to come up with even more innovative ways to not only save more water but help avert an epic crisis in the country in the future.

By Kim Cloete
Image: Hanlie Huisamen