Opinionista Peter van Niekerk 28 March 2018

Day Zero – averted or only postponed? Water trading the way to go

Day Zero was recently averted for Cape Town, largely due to residents’ response to the drought. With winter, and the rains, coming there are sighs of relief. But what about next summer?

There is an even chance for normal to above-normal rainfall this coming winter. However, even with a normal rainfall season, the inflows into the main storage dams will be below normal. This will be due to antecedent conditions; the dry soils and empty farm dams will first suck up the water before significant flows arrive in the big storage dams. It needs a rainy season well above normal for even average run-off to occur.

Chances are thus more than 50% that Day Zero will loom large again next summer. What can be done?

First, the short-term measures that can be implemented to increase supplies, such as expanding groundwater abstraction, have to continue unabated. In addition, a water market needs to be created to enable the city to buy water from agricultural users for the coming summer.

Under normal, unrestricted conditions, agriculture uses some 150-million m3 per year (410 Ml per day on average). This is one-third of the annual water available in the Western Cape Water Supply System (WCWSS) with its main storage dams, the Theewaterskloof, Voëlvlei and Berg River Dams. Most irrigators also have their own water resources, mainly small farm dams, that fill up in winter. At the right price, farmers may consider measures to reduce their water requirements for the next dry season, such as not planting certain annual crops or deciding to move forward the replacement of particular permanent crops. Water thus “saved” can be put up for trading – on a temporary basis. Limitations can be set on the proportion of any farmer’s water allocation that may be traded, to limit impact on labour.

In Australia, with climatic conditions highly comparable to those in South Africa, water trading during severe droughts has secured waters and averted “day zeros” for, among others, the cities of Melbourne and Canberra. Lessons learnt from these experiences should motivate the South African authorities, namely the national Department of Water and Sanitation and the provincial Department of Agriculture, to urgently come up with a workable plan for the temporary transfers of water licences/rights in the Western Cape.

South African policy on water trading has for many years been in a rut. Innate resistance to freeing up the market and no clear policy has meant patchy administrative interpretation and limited trading of water allocations, mostly within the agricultural sector, throughout the country. As always, when administrative interpretation is in play, room is open for favouritism – even corruption. The most recent development from the side of the national Department of Water and Sanitation has been to move towards a total ban on water trading. This would certainly give policy certainty, but at what cost? Again, with reference to Australia, it has been shown that trading can serve as a shock absorber – to the benefit of society as a whole.

In a crisis such as Cape Town’s, it behoves the authorities to overcome their institutional reluctance towards water trading – even on a temporary basis. There is little time left as irrigators need imminently to decide on their planting and operations for the next season. There should be no excuse for vacillation – failure to act will constitute a lack of seriousness by the authorities – even dereliction of duty. DM

Dr Peter van Niekerk has more than 40 years of experience in the water resource planning and engineering field. From 1987 to 2009 he was responsible for all water resources planning in the Department of Water Affairs, South Africa. In his retirement he continues to provide specialist input with respect to the planning of hydrological, water supply and water resources projects

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