Umgeni Water offers more detail on Cape Town desalination plant

Pietermaritzburg – While water utility Umgeni Water has the expertise and skills to assist the City of Cape Town during the water crisis, the City first has to agree to "conditions" before any work starts.

Umgeni Water's acting chief executive Thami Hlongwa made the statement during a press briefing at the Albert Falls Dam in KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday. The dam is currently experiencing a critical shortage.

Hlongwa said Cape Town was "unique" because it was one of the major cities in South Africa that did not have a water board providing bulk water supply.

READ: 'We have experience in drought management' – Umgeni Water defends appointment by Mokonyane

"If there was an imposition we would be working there right now. However, there is nothing that allows us to do so. The minister [Water and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Mokonyane] gave Umgeni a directive saying, can you go to Cape Town and find solutions? And that is what we did."

Hlongwa said the terms and conditions include a guarantee from the City that it could supply electricity for a desalination plant.

"The distribution of electricity is the mandate of the City. The City must reinforce they can supply electricity for the plant. Critically, the location of the plant needs to be within the proximity of their distribution network."

He added: "We have to manage our value chain as Umgeni Water as well. People in charge of reticulation are not seeing the benefits of us being there."

In a press briefing last month, Cape Town's deputy mayor, Ian Nielson, said the City was still open to an offer to provide another desalination plant from the national Department of Water, through Umgeni Water.

The offer though, needed to have more information and be more reasonable than the one Mayor Patricia de Lille had rejected in December.

Mokonyane's offer to build a 10ML (megalitre) plant at the V&A Waterfront - after the City had already commissioned its own desalination plant at the same site - was scant on details and overpriced, he said at the time.

The City did not own the land and the Waterfront itself had plans to build its own plant.

There was also confusion over why the minister had talked about R400m for the desalination plant, when they had information that it was much cheaper.

Cape Town was declared a national disaster on Tuesday in a government gazette published by the Department of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. The department said it had reassessed the "magnitude and severity" of the drought.

Cooperative Governance Minister Des Van Rooyen said the classification meant management of droughts in the Eastern, Western and Northern Cape would move to national government. He added that thus far, more than R70m had been allocated to deal with the drought.

Day Zero in Cape Town was pushed back from May 11 to June 1, after "continued decline in agricultural usage" and better water conservation habits by residents in the city.

Residents, however, had still not reached the daily target of 50 litres per person.