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Treasure in the cellar

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Perspectives change, and that’s just one of the reasons you need to keep an open mind. This whole management-speak gobbledygook of “thinking outside the box”, “blue-sky thinking”, and – my favourite – “win-win situation”… they’re all just words, until they’re backed up by action. So I was recently delighted to actually witness a bit of corporate blue-sky, out-the-box thinking that really did produce a win-win situation.

I drove into the city, pressed the button on the parking ticket dispenser at the Westin Cape Town, and proceeded to spiral down into the depths of the parking garage until I reached a level called “Bed Rock”. And, strange as it might sound, that’s actually where I was headed. Because this is where Cape Town’s first privately owned desalination plant is.

The building in which The Westin Cape Town is situated is owned by Hospitality Property Fund (HPF), which also owns a few other properties close by – Protea Victoria Junction, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Southern Sun The Cullinan and Southern Sun Waterfront. The latter two, which will also benefit from the desalination plant, are managed by Tsogo Sun, which is a majority shareholder in HPF.

When the foundations were dug for The Westin in around the turn of the century, water started seeping in. It was clear, but brackish – not quite seawater, but also definitely not fresh. The sort of thing you find in river mouths or some estuaries. Well, they tried to contain it as best they could, and built the hotel above it. Of course, it still seeped in so they installed big pumps, and from the hotel’s inception – even before – they have been pumping about a million litres of water into the sea every day.

And then, in 2017, we all got a bit of a wake-up call. Yup, global climate change is a reality, and there is a real possibility that Cape Town, that lovely city that always appears in lists of  “The Ten Cities you Must Visit Before you Die”, may well notch up a newsworthy world record: The first major city in the world to run out of water. If all goes well and everyone continues to scrimp and save and bath in a teacup, it can be avoided, but the margins will be tight. So we have all put our thinking caps on, and yes – clichés be damned – we’re thinking outside the box.

In fact, it was already in 2016 when the first, now seemingly quite mild water restrictions, hit, when someone at The Westin said, “Uhm, why are we just pumping all that water in the basement away? Can’t we use it for something?” The seed was planted, but it was only in 2017 when things started looking really dire that what had been quite a nice idea became – in rapid succession – a flipping amazing plan, a concrete proposal, and ultimately a physical reality. The first thing they did was to change the outdoor pool to a salt-water chlorination system, and fill it with water from the basement, and then the desalination project followed.

After parking my car at “Bed Rock” I took the lift up to the foyer and met up with Chief Engineer Andrew Gartshore, who took me back down to the parking lot, and then into the Belly of the Beast. It hadn’t come online yet, so it was reasonably quiet – just a few pumps – but most of the equipment was in place.

The brackish water seeps in and flows at quite a pace in a sort of underground river that made me think of the Phantom of the Opera, except it was below a grating and there wasn’t enough room for a boat, a singer and a psychopath. The pumps that used to pump the water into the sea, will now pump it into a series of filters (similar to, but much bigger than the under-counter one in your kitchen) that does the first part of the purification. Then it goes to the reverse osmosis plant. I’d heard all about these, but I’d never actually seen one, so I was quite excited to learn exactly how they work.

It is basically a pipe within a pipe. The inner pipe has holes the water can go through and is covered by a semi-permeable membrane. Water is pumped into the outer pipe, and then pressurised so it is forced into the inner pipe, but the membrane won’t allow the salts to go through it. So what comes out of the inner pipe is fresh water. This then goes through an ultra-violet steriliser to kill off any nasty lurgies that may have crept in. It is re-mineralised, and then it goes into a reticulation system to be sent off to the three participating hotels.

This process produces 400 000 litres of fresh water per day, enough for all the needs of the three hotels, and 600 000 litres of salty water that – ta-daaa – is almost exactly the salinity of sea water, and is pumped back into the ocean. It’s such a win-win situation that is seems obvious in retrospect. But it wasn’t cheap, and it took a complete reassessment of the value of water to make it feasible.

And also – hmm, there’s the issue of the electricity it uses. In 2007 and 2008, we had load shedding, and everyone was frantically turning off lights when they left a room for five minutes. We all learned to find our way round our houses in the dark, and we gave up ironing our clothes. So, at four kilowatt-hours per 1 000 litres, that probably would not have gone down well back then.

But it’s definitely a good idea now. So, once the obvious hotel – The Westin – was in the pipeline, HPF did some drilling around their other two properties, and found a very similar water source near the Radisson Blu, so they’re busy installing an almost identical plant there. 

It’s all a balancing act – cost vs benefit.

“In 2007 we were putting in LED lighting and heat pumps,” says HPF CEO Keith Randall, “and now we’re concentrating on water.” It’s a pretty pricey option, he acknowledges, but there’s no way a 482-room five-star hotel can survive financially if its water supply is cut off. That’s just not an option. And it will almost certainly pay for itself as the cost of water goes up. And it will continue to go up,” he adds.

Jennifer Stern

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