An employee overlooks filtration tanks at the Emalahleni Water Reclamation Plant
eMalahleni is one of the fastest growing urban areas in South Africa. It is a municipality of 510,000 people in a water-stressed region in the north-east of the country, and has faced considerable difficulties in meeting increased demand for drinking water. Anglo American has invested almost $US100 million in a water reclamation plant to treat underground water from its mining operations in the Witbank coalfield. This currently supplies around 12% of the city’s water, created 700 temporary and 57 permanent jobs, and is also helping to provide affordable housing.
eMalahleni lies within the Olifants River Catchment – one of the regions in which Anglo American has been working with internationally recognised research institutions to develop long-term climate models. “The results projected up to 2050,” says Stan Pillay, the group’s climate change and energy manager, “suggest that there is potential for a reduction in mean annual rainfall in this area.”
Water shortages – or flooding as a result of extreme rainfall events – could have serious implications for what is one of the most economically dynamic areas of South Africa where demand for water is increasing as supply tightens.
Climate adaptation is about dealing with the potential impacts of climate change, and the research findings highlight the importance of prudent water management in the catchment.
Climate adaptation benefits
Anglo American’s Thermal Coal workings in the area around eMalahleni contain approximately 140 megalitres (Ml) of water – a figure that is rising by over 25 - 30 megalitres a day.
Too little water on the surface is a problem for communities. Too much water underground is no less of a problem for a mining company.
So Anglo American’s Thermal Coal invested a decade of research and development into mine water treatment technology. This was aligned with the South African government’s mine closure and rehabilitation strategy, and the employment, development and environmental requirements of local authorities. The research involved a partnership with South Africa’s power utility, Eskom, and all of the major mining houses in the Highveld coalfields.
This led to the establishment of the eMalahleni Water Reclamation Plant, which was commissioned in 2007 to treat the water from local Anglo American operations – and those from a nearby, disused BHP Billiton mine.
The plant currently treats 25 - 30 million litres a day, producing potable water for use by the local municipality. Anglo American has also put in place the infrastructure needed to deliver the treated water directly into the municipality’s system.
“The city is currently licensed to take 75 Ml of water a day from the local Witbank dam” “says Peter Gunther, head of safety and sustainable development, Other Mining and Industrial. “But it needs – and abstracts – 120 Ml, which has a negative impact on communities downstream of the city. By 2030, eMalahleni will be using an additional 60Ml a day” – a 50% increase.
To date the water reclamation plant has treated 30 billion litres of water and supplied 22 billion litres to the eMalahleni Local Municipality.
The plant currently treats 25-30 Ml a day. Some of this is used in our own mining operations, but the bulk of it supplies 12% of the city’s daily water need. In July 2011, the company approved investment to increase treatment capacity to 50 Ml a day – with a peak capacity of 60 Ml a day – and this second phase should be operational before the end of 2013.
“The second phase has been designed to manage water from five coal mines, some of which have reached the end of their lives,” Peter says. This includes mines owned by a competitor company. “We are moving beyond seeking solutions purely for our own mines. What we are after is a holistic way of dealing with the water problems of the entire region.”
The site – and the project – also has the potential for a third phase.
The scheme treats mine water from current active mining operations. But it will remain in operation well beyond the conclusion of active mining, to sustainably manage environmental needs and make drinking water available to the local community into the future.
As Stan Pillay says, “The reclamation plant provides flexibility for the local community together with a degree of water security in the face of the long-term climate adaptation risks from altered precipitation.”
The construction of the plant created almost 700 temporary jobs, two-thirds of which were filled by people from the local community. It now has 57 permanent employees – almost all of whom are local.
Anglo American’s Zimele Fund for small entrepreneurs has also supported the creation of a water bottling enterprise at the site, creating jobs for a further nine people.
The plant wants to be a zero waste facility. A daily by-product of the water reclamation is 200 tonnes of gypsum-based solids, and this has been successfully used to make bricks. So far, 66 affordable homes have been built from the gypsum waste for employees and it is hoped that it will soon be expanded to 300 residential units. In addition, the plant offers an opportunity to further stimulate local employment through the establishment of a community-based enterprise that will manufacture and distribute these gypsum-based products to local builders.
And – of course – the number of people in the local community who now have access to clean drinking water has increased. The percentage of people without drinking water has been reduced from 14% to 2%, aiding the provincial government in meeting one of its Millennium Development Goals to ensure that no household goes without a potable, reliable and predictable water supply.
The project is replicable – and is being examined by six of Anglo American’s ten Thermal Coal operations. It has already been replicated by a private mining company, Optimum Coal Holdings, who commissioned a 15 Ml a day plant in June 2010 to the east of eMalahleni. Four other projects in the Witbank coalfields are in various stages of project development based on the same model as the eMalahleni plant. Mines, other than coal, are also looking to replicate this model. Considerable know-how has been developed as a result of this project with Anglo American recently asked to provide input to the South African government on a national desalination strategy.
1 megalitre (Ml) = 1 million litres
1m³ of water = 1000 litres