Water by super tanker or the truckload – admirable but futile efforts

By: Helgard Muller

Is donating thousands of litres of water to drought-stricken communities really helping, or is it a futile attempt to alleviate the critical, nation-wide water crisis we are facing?

The terrible drought combined with poor municipal management and lack of maintenance of water infrastructure, has caused many taps to run dry. Newspapers and TV coverage often show water trucks running to the rescue. Several donation campaigns are underway where the public offers bottled water to be delivered to communities in need.

These are all praiseworthy efforts and can certainly supplement the bare minimum needed for human survival for a couple of days. But can our normal daily piped water supply be replaced by water trucks to alleviate critical water shortages?

Barcelona undertook this – not by the truckload, but by huge tanker ships. In 2008, the metro of Barcelona was caught up in a terrible drought. Augmentation projects had been delayed and were not even close to completion. The nervous leaders of the city decided to bring in water by ship.

Tanker ships were contracted at a cost of USD30 million to transfer potable water from the Spanish city, Tarragona, and the French port of Marseille. The first two shiploads tied up at Barcelona docks and their contents were pumped directly into Barcelona’s water mains.

But Barcelona – being a metro of 5 million people – drew the first ship’s water, a whopping 19 million litres, in only 32 minutes. The second, larger ship’s load of 36 million litres lasted only 62 minutes. Conclusion: even super tankers cannot carry city-size quantities of water.

This fascinating example, although proven to be only a symbolic gesture in practice, inspired me to do a few calculations for Gauteng and see how things would add up if we brought in water by the truck load in a water crisis situation.

The total daily water supply to the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni metros is in the order of 3 600 Mℓ/day. Let’s assume that all the petroleum tanker trucks used by Sasol, Engen, Total and others in South Africa might be used to bring potable water from the water rich Eastern Cape or parts of KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng, and furthermore, that they will be able to bring in water at the rate that they normally deliver fuel to service stations – a volume of 63Mℓ/day. (According to the website of the South African Petroleum Industry Association, the total annual use of petrol and diesel in the country is 23 billion litres (2013 figure) which means a daily average of 63 300kℓ or 63,3Mℓ/day.)

Read the full feature in Plumbing Africa March 2016, page 31.

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