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20 March 2018 19:22 (South Africa)
South Africa

Dry Land: How the race for water could leave us high and dry, Part One

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa
Photo: Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, 23 January 2018. Theewaterskloof Dam is the single biggest dam supplying water to the metropole of Cape Town. Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

South Africa is a water scarce country, with disasters declared in several provinces due to drought. Yet ecologists are concerned that an over-emphasis on built infrastructure means any short-term water augmentation plans put into place now will be just that – short term, leaving the critical environmental support structure that ensures sustainable water supply threatened. And if you think this problem is unique to the Western Cape’s much-publicised water crisis, think again. Just 8% of South Africa’s land supplies 50% of its water. And that land is threatened. By MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.

This is part 1 of a two-part feature. Read part 2 here 

Where does your water come from?

Dams? And where does that water come from? Rain? Partially. But how does that water get to the built infrastructure?

The rain so many have been hoping for travels through a complex, ingenious network of ecological infrastructure, which the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) explains as the naturally functioning ecosystems providing a different kind of service delivery to humans: fresh water, climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction. It is, SANBI says, the “nature-based equivalent of built or hard infrastructure, and just as important for providing services and underpinning socio-economic development”.

Grossly simplified, it’s the land (and everything on it) that ensures safe, clean water lands up in our dams. And it’s arguably scarcer than water itself. Just 8% of South Africa’s land provides a staggering 50% of its surface water.

Yet this land is under threat. Even before the water crisis, just 16% of South Africa’s already-scarce water source areas were protected. Now, conservationists are raising the alarm: they say the scramble for water is compromising this key land and will only cause bigger shortages later.

Cape Town and its surrounds are an obvious example. But as South Africa overall is water scarce, the same principles apply countrywide.

The City of Cape Town receives 98.8% of its water from the Boland Mountains and Table Mountain water source areas. The rest of the country has 22 water source areas spread across five provinces (KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Limpopo).

The greatest threats to date have been gold and coal mining, fracking, fires, land degradation, large-scale plantations, alien vegetation and climate change. But ironically, the water system itself – waste water treatment and now, the race for water augmentation systems, are potentially threatening environmentally sensitive areas.

Recently, near drought-stricken Cape Town, prominent ecologists including SAEON's Jasper Slingsby argued that drilling into the Cape’s unconfined aquifers could provide limited short-term augmentation to the water supply, but “(cancel) the insurance policy we need, since rainfall is predicted to become ever less certain”. (More on this in Part 2.) Slingsby argued this on the basis that the drilling process was abstracting the same water that replenishes our own water supply system and groundwater, and supports biodiversity in catchment areas as well as feeding the rivers that supply towns and farm dams.

Both Slingsby and researcher Kate Snaddon from the Freshwater Research Centre confirmed that the majority of the 222 known drilling sites planned by the city of Cape Town fall within ecosystems listed as threatened under National Environmental Management Act (NEMA), and more than half fall within formally protected areas. The city, facing increasing political pressure to provide solutions to the mounting water crisis, has argued in turn that it is drilling legally and in terms of NEMA - “in order to undertake water augmentation in response to the worst drought on record”, Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson told Daily Maverick.

Independent environmental consultant Mark Botha is one of those concerned, and has written to the Department of Environmental Affairs to ask it to consider carefully any requests for drilling in sensitive areas. “The issue is not so much about the city and seven other municipalities getting the permissions. It is that these Directives/Authorisations and Water Use Licences are really weak, don’t follow NEMA, don’t avoid unnecessary impacts in nature reserves, and will not result in the requisite mitigation, especially for ecological infrastructure. This cannot be considered an 'emergency',” he told Daily Maverick.

Many conservation bodies, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), SANBI and Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), have been arguing for a longer-term view of water security for years, arguing that water scarcity is not new, not going away, and that protecting key water source areas must be a priority. Even where water supply is not currently threatened, they say, not investing adequately in the environmental support system means we’ll be lurching from water crisis to water crisis.

Moreover, they add, it saves money long-term to invest in ecological infrastructure, as it helps prevent water waste and damage to the built infrastructure.

The CER notes South Africa’s mean annual rainfall is 490mm, just half the global average. Further, high evaporation rates result in less than 9% of the rainfall ending up in our rivers. A further 37% of non-revenue water is lost once it enters the distribution system.

South Africa made considerable investments into engineered infrastructure (dams and inter-basin transfer schemes) in the 1930s, '70s and '80s. This network supplies water to drier parts of the country and our urban centres. The cost to maintain and upgrade this critical infrastructure is estimated at R680-billion over the next decade,” they argue.

But water doesn’t come from a tap, not even a dam. Most of our water comes from precious areas, in the highest parts of our catchments, that receive the highest rainfall. These are South Africa’s water source areas – the 'crown jewels’.”

Invest from where?

There is, in fact, financial and legislative support at local, provincial and government level for supporting conservation and biodiversity. But the execution is complex.

The Department of Water and Sanitation has been called to account multiple times for financial mismanagement – most recently after the latest Cabinet reshuffle. Blame-shifting between local and national departments has been well-documented in media reports. Sources Daily Maverick spoke to, meanwhile, expressed concern over budget cuts for conservation.

A key problem, says Christine Colvin, Senior Manager: Freshwater Programmes for WWF-SA, is that there isn’t a single functional agency whose responsibility is the health of our catchments. “The Catchment Management Agency is not yet functional for the country as a whole, and catchment management needs to go beyond water management and allocation. It needs to influence how land is farmed, forested, managed and mined.”

Councillor Brett Herron, the city of Cape Town’s Mayco Member for Urban Development and Transport, told Daily Maverick that in Cape Town’s case, funding for conservation remained a problem. “Budget is always a challenge. Conservation of the ecological infrastructure and ensuring a sustainable city is entrenched in the city’s Integrated Development Plan; however, there are many competing items for the budget that is available,” he said.

Botha told Daily Maverick that South Africa’s water economy was “broken”, arguing that a more functional water system – ecological and otherwise – could be built if mindsets were changed and there was no longer the expectation that water should be cheaper than was sustainable. This applied to both politicians and citizens, he said.

The key issues are not just about the obvious neglect of ecological infrastructure and its contribution to resilient catchments, but also the mandates and funding required for long-term ongoing ecological repair and maintenance. The water economy is fundamentally broken, especially in how it treats its ecological infrastructure,” he said.

In the discussions around recalibrating water tariffs across the entire water value chain, we must bear in mind the need to adequately cost in the protection and maintenance of the ecological infrastructure,” Botha argued, saying this could range from a few cents (agricultural and forestry users) to a couple of rand (residential and industry users, sliding scale) per kilolitre. Performance should also be audited based on ecological and hydrological outcomes, not only job creation, he added.

In Cape Town, this was echoed by Deputy Mayor Ian Neilson, who told Daily Maverick it was “simply no longer sustainable” to continue with the historically low price of municipally supplied water. “To place the price of water into perspective, the cost of water per litre that the city charges is 3c per litre while a litre of soda costs R12,” he said.

The city has reached a point where it can no longer afford to supply water at tariffs that are unsustainable. Vulnerable households will, however, still receive the same level of protection through subsidisation or exemption, whether it be for tariffs or rates.”

There had been resistance to tariff increases, he said.

But whether higher tariffs will plug the gaps identified by Botha locally is unclear, as the damage done by long-term water shortages may already run deeply. Neilson said the city had suffered losses due to reduced water usage, since the higher tariffs had functioned as a deterrent to higher usage, but costs of system maintenance had remained constant.

Higher tariffs have proved to be an effective deterrent to high usage: Due to residents’ water-savings efforts, the city’s water and sanitation department has made a R1.4-billion loss in revenue as waters sales have declined,” he said. “While we applaud residents’ efforts to save water, this means that there is less budget available to maintain our water and sanitation services to the required standard, as all revenue from tariff increases goes towards these services.

The cost of running a water and sanitation network does not increase or decrease in proportion to the amount of water used or sold. No matter how much is used, the same repairs and maintenance programmes are necessary to keep water and sewage flowing reliably.

Up until now, tariffs have been adjusted to recover the revenue deficit primarily from the higher usage consumers. However, given how few people are now entering the higher steps of the tariff where the price per kilolitre goes up, this methodology is no longer functioning effectively and the city must therefore adjust water pricing more drastically in the lower steps of the tariff.”

Low tariffs would not “help to change our behaviour and our relationship with water,” he said.

And where does this leave the National Department? New minister of Water and Sanitation Gugile Nkwinti recently told Scopa, “The truth is, we don’t have a department.” The shambles left behind by former minister Nomvula Mokonyane was compared by MPs, reported Rebecca Davis, to the worst-run State owned Enterprises. Amid many of the country’s municipalities facing water restrictions, SCOPA is opening a criminal case against the department, which has now been called to account for financial mismanagement for the third time. In short, Nkwinti is inheriting a mess. It is unclear as yet, however, whether his track record speaks of an ability to clean it.

The Department of Water and Sanitation is supposed to collect funds for invasive plant management in the Water Resource Management Charge, Botha notes, as part of its Raw Water Price determination. “However, these funds are currently only limited to clearing aliens and not also fixing wetlands, rivers and protecting recharge areas; the calculation of the budgets for clearing aliens is opaque, its collection from water users is haphazard and pitiful, its transfer through the Water Trading Entity to work on the ground is basically non-existent.”

The benefits of the Nature Resource Management (NRM) Programme in Working for Water could “run into the billions”, he opined. However, he believes WfW and other NRM programmes are hamstrung by administrative constraints that further exacerbate budget shortages.


In a report produced by the WWF and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) titled An Introduction to South Africa’s Water Source Areas, the authors modelled information about rainfall and river run-off, finding the above-mentioned 8% of our land that produced half the country’s surface run-off – and adding that just 16% of this land is protected.

The highest protection was found the Western Cape, with the Kougaberg, Swartberg and Grootwinterhoek areas having more than 70% formal protection, while WSAs in the Eastern Cape and Maloti Drakensberg, the Enkangala Drakensberg, the Mfolozi headwaters and the Soutpansberg had very low or no protection.

This means that whatever trend is followed in drought-stricken areas now – whatever balance is struck between conservation and augmentation methods – will set an important precedent for long-term sustainable water supply. It also has implications for the engineered infrastructure. “Degraded ecological infrastructure leads to reduced capacity and lifespan of dams, increasing the cost of their maintenance. It also increases the risk of flooding. The result is damage to infrastructure such as roads and bridges, which may even be washed away. All of this poses a significant risk to people,” argues the CER.

Colvin told Daily Maverick that investment in preserving ecological infrastructure would, long-term, be more cost-effective and provide an excellent return on investment. “Alien plant removal and catchment management are comparable to shallow groundwater abstraction and much cheaper than short-term desalination. The other options are not viable and will suffer increasing costs in the future if the upstream ecological infrastructure isn’t actively managed,” she said.

Local government officials in Cape Town have prioritised alien plant removal. Herron told Daily Maverick the city has been “making every effort to address key threats such as natural habitat degradation, fire, dumping, alien plant and animal control, lack of capacity for management and security-related to both environmental and general crime”. He also noted ongoing work in terms of reduction targets for key areas where alien vegetation was being removed, with invasive control plans for each site being drafted and the pines and gums around Steenbras and Wemmershoek being removed.

During 2017 the city cleared 1,069ha of alien trees, plus associated follow-up clearance, excluding forestry areas in Steenbras and Wemmershoek that are earmarked for harvesting by forestry. At Wemmershoek, the saving will be approximately 1-million litres per day when all pine trees are removed, says Neilson.

According to Herron, who cited research by Le Maitre et al (2015), when fynbos shrublands are invaded by alien trees, the losses to run-off amount to 200mm to 300mm/pa rainfall equivalent through increased vegetation water use. A study will be undertaken with the Greater Cape Town Water Fund to monitor the sap flow of invasive plants on the Atlantis Aquifer to confirm the water loss.

But while the existing efforts are commendable, future rainfall is uncertain and pressure on the city of Cape Town and other municipalities facing water shortages is not going away. And ecologists like Slingsby are concerned that while the drilling plans in the Western Cape have been undertaken too hastily, compromising longer-term environmental security and potentially undermining simultaneous conservation efforts. Slingsby and associates William Bond, Nicky Allsopp, Edmund February, and Adam West recently issued a Letter of Concern, arguing that abstraction from the Table Mountain Aquifer Group was “surrounded by a high degree of uncertainty” and pointing out possible impact on the environment.

The current manner in which the project is being implemented poses a major threat to the integrity of our catchments and the quantity and quality of water they provide in the short and long-term,” they said.

The good news, says Colvin, is that South Africa has progressive legislation in place – the challenge is enforcing it, and raising awareness of its importance.

The Department of Water and Sanitation has recognised the need to protect wetlands, aquifers, river and estuarine ecosystems, and has called for preventing further degradation in certain key areas.

There are also existing success stories across the country: one notable example is the uMngeni River catchment, which identified a net value of R268-million in rehabilitation and maintenance interventions, 50,5-million tons in reduced sediment loads and a 359,4-million m3 increase in streamflow after a successful intervention between the Department of Environmental Affairs, SANBI, the Green Fund, the Development Bank of South Africa and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Mahlodi Tau, Director, Ecological Infrastructure at SANBI says there is potential to replicate similar successes elsewhere in South Africa, including the Western Cape and other drought-stricken areas.

According to SANBI, biodiversity initiatives have seen 486,000 work opportunities created in environmental rehabilitation programmes since 1995, 15,000 jobs created through formal conservation of protected areas, 27,000 jobs supported by the fishing industry, and 70,000 jobs in game ranching and ecotourism.

But the challenge remains maintaining the longer-term view where there is pressure to drive crisis management.

We need to acknowledge that water provisioning is a priority in our water scarce country and ensure that healthy landscapes can yield reliable water supplies to the rest of the economy,” Colvin says. “We are often making trade-offs and decisions at too small a scale. We need to shift the horizons for our decision-making to the long term and the catchment scale to ensure we are not short-changing ourselves and the next generation.” DM

Photo: Theewaterskloof Dam in Villiersdorp, South Africa, 23 January 2018. Theewaterskloof Dam is the single biggest dam supplying water to the metropole of Cape Town. Photo: EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA

  • Marelise van der Merwe
    Marelise van der Merwe

    Marelise van der Merwe writes about anything and everything. After she studied, and then studied some more, and then studied a bit more, she spent some years writing, editing, researching and teaching, before becoming production editor at the Daily Maverick. After a couple more years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you’re welcome) she ventured into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

  • South Africa

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