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Nelson Mandela Bay businesses play key role in progress towards water equity

Nelson Mandela Bay businesses play key role in progress towards water equity
The Nooitgedachte water treatment plant in Kirkwood, Nelson Mandela Bay, on 5 April 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Lulama Zenzile)

As a representative of around 700 businesses, the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber believes it is important to offer the facts about the water situation in the metro as well as the role that business is playing to assist the public sector to address water leaks and wastage, and augment municipal water supply in disadvantaged communities.

The opinion piece “Nelson Mandela Bay ‘water racism’ — a pandemic for poor and working-class residents” by Nelson Mandela University researchers Siyabulela Mama and Antony Martel in Daily Maverick of 16 July is factually incorrect, poorly researched and displays limited understanding of water issues affecting our metro, economics and the role of business in our communities.

The article claims that the metro’s largest companies, including Ford, Continental Tyre, Aspen Pharmacare, Volkswagen South Africa, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa and Isuzu Motors South Africa “operate unabated” while residents in surrounding townships “struggle with poor access to water and rising water-service debts”.

It is ironic that these large manufacturers singled out by the authors are, in fact, among the largest contributors to alleviating the metro’s water crisis, as well as some of the largest employers and contributors to social upliftment and economic empowerment in our metro.

What the authors fail to recognise is that without business and the employment it creates and sustains, and the income that goes into workers’ pockets and to the public purse via rates and taxes, there would be no jobs, no delivery of public sector services like water and sanitation, no retail and services sectors and no university.

As outlined below, many businesses in our metro are stepping into the role of delivering certain basic services, social welfare, education and other areas in the absence of service delivery.

The automotive industry is the backbone of the metro’s industrial sector and the major driver of employment. The Automotive Business Council, Naamsa, states that vehicle and component manufacturers employ 110,000 people across SA, and with its strong multiplier effect reaching into both downstream and upstream sectors, account for more than 500,000 jobs in the formal economy.

Here in our metro, at least 40% of manufacturing employment is in the automotive sector which incorporates original equipment manufacturers such as Volkswagen and Isuzu, as well as almost half of the country’s automotive supply chain manufacturers.

It is widely accepted that each employed person in South Africa has an impact on, or supports, a further 10 people. It is business and not government that creates these jobs, with the role of government being to provide an enabling environment for job retention and creation.

Water and conservation by industry in Nelson Mandela Bay 

Below are some examples of industrial water consumption and savings measures, which indicate that industries are certainly not operating “unabated” or turning a blind eye to the metro’s water crisis and the impacts of climate change.

  • Aspen Pharmacare has invested R60-million in taking its water consumption completely “off-grid”. This has made an additional one million litres of water per day available to other consumers in the metro.
  • Auto-X (formerly Willard Batteries) has reduced its municipal water consumption by between 30% and 50%, with a target of becoming zero-effluent, by recycling all grey water back into the process water system and using waste process water, usually discharged to the sewer system, for flushing toilets.
  • Isuzu Motors SA has reduced its municipal water consumption with the capacity to harvest 60kl of water from the plant roofs for use in its water-test facility and fire dam, while processed water is harvested and treated on-site, with the use of greywater for ablutions flushing saving up to 20kl of clean water per day. The company has sunk at least four boreholes on its site with this water to be used in manufacturing processes including the paint shop and cooling towers.
  • Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa has taken numerous steps to reduce water usage and recycle and reuse water used in its production processes. Water used to clean and rinse bottles is recovered and reused (instead of municipal water), for cooling towers, ablutions and floor washing, while the process itself has been optimised to use less water. Optimisation of the on-site reverse osmosis plant has resulted in a reduction of wastewater, while the plant also makes use of a borehole and rainwater harvesting. In addition, the company implemented nine off-grid groundwater harvesting systems known as Coke Ville in the communities of  Walmer Township, Lorraine and Kariega. These systems have the potential to supply more than 90 million litres per annum.

Volkswagen South Africa

The opinion piece singled out Volkswagen South Africa as an example that the authors claim “can be extended across the largest enterprises operating in the metro to demonstrate just how much water is prioritised for the city’s economic drivers”. The information is completely inaccurate and misleading and warrants a detailed response.

The authors reference an outdated, 2012, study to make their calculation of VWSA’s water consumption in vehicle production. This is problematic, and poor research practice, for a number of reasons.

  • The study was published by the Georgia Institute of Technology more than a decade ago. Manufacturing processes, technology and practices around the sustainability and conservation of resources have changed dramatically in the past 10 years, rendering the statistical findings of that research irrelevant and flawed.
  • Further, the quoted study references figures obtained from Volkswagen in Germany in 2000, based on a different vehicle than that manufactured at the South African plant, making the extrapolation of these more than 20-year-old figures to VW’s current operations in South Africa questionable at best.
  • In addition to being irrelevant, the figure quoted by the authors — of Volkswagen using 5,010 litres of water per 1.19 vehicles assembled — actually appears nowhere in the referenced study.

These are the facts:

  • The company has cut its consumption of municipal water by more than 70% since 2010, with water used in production currently standing at about 1,000kl per day.  This is less than a third of the wholly inaccurate 3,400kl per day calculated in the article.
  • VWSA’s zero water roadmap will take the plant to zero municipal water consumption as early as 2026. This, however, relies on the municipality repairing the Kelvin Jones wastewater treatment works in Kariega.
  • The company invested R20-million in a wastewater recycling facility in 2022, which currently recycles 150kl of wastewater per day and is being ramped up to 250kl per day. This will allow more than 70% of all wastewater to be recycled and reused, resulting in a 26% reduction in total freshwater use.
  • A reverse osmosis system recycles brine/concentrate water for ablutions and wash bays, saving more than 1,100kl of freshwater per year.
  • Rainwater harvesting has saved 2,393kl of freshwater since June 2022, and new installations this year will save an additional 6,000kl per year.

The role of business in the water crisis 

The industrial and commercial sectors in Nelson Mandela Bay account for 35% of the metro’s water consumption, according to the municipality’s 2020/21 annual report (the latest available). Contrary to the claim in the article, there are no commercial farms drawing municipal water in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan area.

The same report discloses that 40% of Nelson Mandela Bay’s treated water is “lost” and unbilled — 11% due to theft and illegal or unauthorised consumption, and 29% effectively to leaks.

Over the past few years of the drought and water management crisis in the metro, business has undertaken a number of initiatives to address water losses and support sustainable water use in disadvantaged areas.

Schools account for 10% of the total municipal water lost due to leaks, as a result of poor maintenance and vandalism.

The Business Chamber’s Adopt-a-School initiative has seen 76 schools across the metro assisted by business to date with the repairing of leaks, upgrading of plumbing for water efficiency, education on reducing water consumption, and installation of water-saving and harvesting measures including rainwater tanks and boreholes.

Some of the most substantial contributors to this initiative include the companies mentioned in the article.

In 2022, when the metro’s supply dams reached critically low levels and the prospect of dry taps was real, the Business Chamber initiated the Adopt-a-Leak project to address the metro’s high rate of water losses caused by leaks.

The project, funded and led by Aspen Pharmacare, Volkswagen SA and Continental Tyres, focused on addressing household leaks in seven impoverished areas of the metro that had the highest rates of water losses. The thinking is that leaks on the demand, or customer side, of the system account for a large proportion of water losses, and that residents in the identified “hotspot” areas generally do not have the financial resources or skills to do plumbing repairs.

Over six months, more than 4,200 households were assisted, resulting in a 23% reduction in water demand in these areas — saving more than 1.5 million litres per day of the metro’s treated water from going literally down the drain.

With these leaks fixed, this is a sustainable daily saving and illustrates that a targeted effort, focusing on numerous small leaks, can make a substantial difference.

In addition, during this crisis, Coca-Cola Beverages SA, in partnership with Gift of the Givers, made its trucks available to support the foundation’s distribution of water to areas where the water supply was running dry. The company also donated 20 5,000-litre JoJo tanks to be placed at water collection points and distributed 500 “water wheelers” to communities to aid water collection and storage. It also deployed three Coke Ville sites — off-grid, solar-powered groundwater harvesting and treatment projects — to the worst affected areas within the metro. These sites can replenish at least 90 million litres per annum at no cost to the beneficiaries.

These are just a few examples, specifically focused on the water crisis, of what business does in the metro in terms of community support across numerous corporate social investment initiatives.

Volkswagen SA, for example, has invested more than R57-million in corporate social investment initiatives in the past two years, focusing on education, youth development and community health and wellbeing. This demonstrates that this has not just been a box-ticking exercise, but is a genuine commitment to the upliftment of surrounding communities.

The above illustrates that contrary to the article’s contention that big business does not “match the extractive nature of their plunder”, it is business that creates employment, that is reducing its consumption of treated municipal water, and that is working with the government to bridge skills gaps and improve basic service delivery.

It is accepted that an opinion-driven article is by its nature subjective and biased towards supporting a particular argument or point of view.

However, opinion pieces that are unsubstantiated, unsupported by facts or, worse, rely on untruths, do nothing to advance an argument or a cause, and lack credibility. Essentially they amount to fake news, which results in incitement and complete misperceptions being promoted, which potentially could have harmful consequences on our local economy and cause reputational damage for businesses that practise good corporate citizenship.

Sadly, this calls into question the academic competence and integrity of the writers and whether their intention is to sow division rather than to progress solutions to the service delivery crisis and equitable access to basic services. Such poorly considered opinions also bring the city, academic institutes, business and the country as a whole into disrepute. DM

Denise van Huyssteen is the chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • H K says:

    The Nelson Mandela Bay Business Chamber and its members need to be lauded and not vilified.

    Those ” researchers” need to revisit their “findings”

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

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