From the news desk

The desalination plant on the Waterfront is not operating and the company that runs it is in a legal dispute with the City of Cape Town. Photo: Kristine Liao

Desalination company takes City to court over contaminated water

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During Cape Town’s recent water crisis which saw “Day Zero” looming and instilling a sense of fear and dismay in many Capetonians, the City of Cape Town made a last-ditch effort to secure desalinated water for the Central Business District (CBD) which would have supplied the City’s business and tourism hub with sufficient water to continue functioning throughout the drought. The desalination plant established at the V&A Waterfront, however, is now in question. The R60 million plant is no longer producing water as a direct result of a dispute between a local water filtration company and the City.

The owner and managing director of Quality Filtration Systems (QFS), Herman Smit has revealed that the dispute is the culmination of 13 months of negotiations.  Smit indicated that the City acted hastily during the water crisis to keep up appearances and that the tender process was very short.

“We had to install the plant quickly – obviously because of the marketing efforts by the City, to show they were doing something. They hastily put out a tender on the 10th November 2017 and only allowed contractors like us to tender for two weeks. In the tender, they provided us with the water quality data,” Smit told VOC Breakfast Beat on Thursday.

“We only realised in the last few months that they [the City] knew about the contamination [of the water needed for desalination] and they didn’t divulge it to us out of fear that we were going to use it to build a very expensive plant,” said Smit.

The company said had the City advised of the poor state of the sea water and the extraordinary levels of contamination of which it was aware, the plant tendered would have been designed to deal with the quality of the inflow water and the company would not be faced with this stand-off now.

Smit said in retrospect, the City knew about water contamination issues and feared taking the desalination process with QFS further. Smit also accused the City of not complying with their legal obligations.

“Only now, do we realise that they [City] knew about the sewage contamination and were afraid of what would be found if we started injecting the water.”

“We pointed out to the City that we feel they don’t comply with all their legal requirements. It’s not our responsibility as a water services provider to have all the legalities in place…We’ve had a really poor response from the City to resolve this problem.”

“We had to force the city to go to mediation. We‘re preparing court papers to hand in to court very soon,” said Smit.

The severity of water contamination is a vital factor in the construction of a desalination plant and the designs of these plants need to be suitable for different levels of contamination, he explained.

He feels that the integrity of the tender process and the safety of the company has been undermined by the City’s recent actions and its unpredictable changing of contractual conditions.

“It’s [dirty water, that is] really a bigger problem than what it seems. When you design a filtration plant, it’s almost like designing a road for peak traffic. We have to design for the worst contaminants.”

“To put this in an analogy – if I’m asking you to supply me with a vehicle that can go 100 km/h and you deliver it, then the next day I say the same vehicle has to travel at 400 km/h, that surely can’t happen. So, in the same way, the design is for two different plants. You will never be able to produce the volumes desired at the costs you’ve designed with [in the initial plan].”

“We can’t survive something like this as an SME (if the City decides to be volatile and change contractual conditions as it pleases them),” said Smit.

Smit added that the City is misleading the public with regards to how taxpayer’s money is being wasted on the operation at the desalination plant.

The City of Cape Town was invited for comment but declined, citing that the legal process is underway.

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