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Drought is a wake-up call on SA’s water needs

Sep 11 2016 06:04
Yolandi Groenewald, City Press

DESOLATE The drought has had a devastating effect on agriculture and livestock, and doesn’t appear to be abating Picture: Nelius Rademan

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The drought that has nearly depleted several major dams and led to countrywide water restrictions is a much-needed wake-up call for South Africa, which faces increasing water scarcity in future.

As dire as things are, the worst thing for South Africa could actually have been if the drought had been too short and too light, said Christine Colvin, senior manager: freshwater programmes at WWF SA.

Investing in infrastructure such as the Lesotho Highlands Water Project alone will not be enough to ensure that South Africa does not run out of water.

This scheme is responsible for delivering much of the water consumed in South Africa’s economic hub, Gauteng.

“While it is really important that we look after our hard infrastructure such as pipes, taps, reservoirs and dams, it becomes even more crucial to invest in the ecological infrastructure upstream if we want to have water security,” she said.

This means better land management in rain catchment areas, and empowering communities in these critical catchments to guard against land degradation.

It also meant not mining in these valuable areas, Colvin said.

“The drought has been a pressure test for our water economy and we need to respond promptly to this test,” she said.

It was critical for South Africa now to move away from a linear water economy to a circular water economy, where the maximum benefit was derived from water at every step, Colvin explained.

This better approach circulates water in closed loops. In this model, water is reused time and again, retaining full value.

On Thursday, the interministerial committee on drought warned that water use needed to be reined in across the country, as there was no guarantee that rain was coming.

For the first time in 24 years, the water department has levied water restrictions in the Orange River.

The restrictions imposed will be by 15% for farmers that irrigate, and by 10% for industrial and domestic use.

“The drought is far from over and even with normal rainy seasons, it will take a number of years for the system to stabilise,” the department of water and sanitation warned this week.

There are, however, savings to be had.

South Africans consume water as if they were living in a water-rich country, despite the country being the 30th driest in the world. Climate change models predict that a large part of the country will only get drier in future.

Research shows that South Africans consume water well above global averages, coming in at 280llitres per day per person – compared with the global average of 175 litres per day per person.

Some 40% of household water use goes to gardens and lawns.

At the moment, dam levels across the country are precarious low and still declining.

South Africa’s total cattle herd has shrunk by 15% over the past three years and farmers planted on average 30% less mealies in response to the drought.

In the second half of last year, dams across the country were about 64% full, but by this month, the figure had dropped to 53%.

This average hides the dire state of major dams.

Gauteng’s biggest water reservoir, the Vaal Dam, is only 32% full. In KwaZulu-Natal, the Klipfontein Dam stands at 12.5%, Hluhluwe at 17.7% and Goedertrouw at 17.7%.

National and local government have imposed a number of tight water restrictions.

The Caledon River is under a 75% water restriction for irrigation. Johannesburg has to drop water use by 15% now or face water cuts from Rand Water. Penalties are stiff.

Households using upwards of 40 000 litres of water a month will be paying 30% more for their excess.

Residents can’t use hosepipes, and watering gardens by day or washing cars is not allowed.

In Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga, similar water restrictions stand and car washes had to close
shop.

lesotho  |  drought  |  water crisis
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