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South Africa is drying up – and it is only going to get worse


Dr Roland Ngam is programme manager for climate justice and socioecological transformation at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation Southern Africa. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

South Africa is among the 30th-most water-stressed countries in the world. Since the beginning of the 2010s, the country has been trapped in a series of multi-year droughts, exacerbated by a rapidly heating planet as well as the long-term effects of El Niño. Average temperatures for the period 2010-2020 were the highest on record, and that translates into real problems for all communities.

Let’s be clear: the acute water challenges that plague South Africa are probably going to be with us for a long time. On 26 October 2020, the World Meteorological Organisation released its “State of the Climate Report in Africa 2019” that lays bare the dire situation of multi-year droughts and acceleration of further extreme weather events in Africa.

The report indicates that temperatures in Africa have been rising somewhat faster than the global mean surface temperature. It adds that “the areas most severely affected by drought in 2019 were in southern Africa and were many of the same areas that were also affected by a protracted drought in 2014–2016”. The report refers to Africa as “an exposure and vulnerability ‘hotspot’ for climate variability and change impacts”.

We knew this already. South Africa is among the 30th most water-stressed countries in the world. Since the beginning of the 2010s, the country has been trapped in a series of multi-year droughts, exacerbated by a rapidly heating planet as well as the long-term effects of El Niño. Average temperatures for the period 2010-2020 were the highest on record – and that translates into real problems for all communities.

Let’s look at the impact of drought on farming communities. When local and international media were focusing on Cape Town’s “Day Zero” cliff-hanger a few years ago, very little was being reported on the unfolding devastation in farming communities. Now, the nightmare is slowly coming to light. According to satellite maps captured by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, which measures how plants absorb light, plant greenness is below normal in southern Africa and brown areas are growing bigger and bigger.

The results of a survey published by Agri-SA in 2019 entitled Agriculture Drought Report 2018/2019 revealed that the water situation was critical in seven of South African’s nine provinces – 70% of the group’s 18,000 farmer base were struggling financially, and more than 50% were exploring the need to retrench farm workers. Faced with bills piling up and the prospect of losing their investments, some were even taking their lives.

The national Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, evoked Section 25 of the Public Finance Management Act to provide R50-million to support drought-hit farmers. In early 2020, the national Department of Water and Sanitation set aside an extra amount of R300-million from its emergency funds to roll out drought-relief efforts in the Northern Cape, the hardest-hit province in the country where 70% of the land is used for livestock.

The livestock sector is reeling. In the Northern Cape, animals have been dropping and dying of thirst in the middle of the arid land. Dried-out carcasses dot the countryside. From De Aar to Calvinia and Springbok, it is the same story everywhere. No water. Helpless farmers are forced to sell their livestock at giveaway prices – and very often, there aren’t many takers. Temperatures peaked at 47°C in Oudtshoorn earlier in 2020. The Western Cape provincial government has distributed R100,000 to individual drought-stricken farmers to help cushion the impact of their losses and help curb a spate of farmer suicides. They are not alone. Drought relief has become a permanent item in all provincial government’s budgets.

Smallholder farmers, who are often overlooked, under-represented and usually dismissed, have been hit especially hard by drought conditions. Since they lack the resources to tap into aquifers for water, they have been abandoning their farms and migrating to urban areas in search of work. Needless to say, in a context of high unemployment, complicated by the Covid-19 pandemic, not many of them have been able to find any work.

Statistics South Africa’s 2018 General Household Survey shows that agriculture contributes significantly to household food security. A high number of households are involved in farming, with big numbers in Limpopo (37%), Eastern Cape (29%), Mpumalanga (25%), KwaZulu-Natal (18%) and the Free State (17%). Around 90% of these households have never received any support from the government. Persistent drought conditions are pushing many families into desperate food vulnerability.  

This grim picture of water scarcity should lead to a complete rethinking of how water is used and managed in South Africa. The prevailing mentality in the country is still that the climate crisis is – to paraphrase the words of Kofi Annan – something that is going to happen in the future. It is an unappealing topic because it is happening in slow motion – not as sudden and dramatic as the Covid-19 pandemic and its concomitant shutdowns.

Various tiers of the government have issued disaster declarations to help provide more support to farmers. When the government repealed a seven-year-old, state-of-disaster declaration for drought-affected areas earlier in 2020, there were howls of anger and frustration from farmers – and the government was forced to change course and extend the declaration by another month. The Eastern Cape issued a disaster declaration in October 2019, followed by another declaration by Northern Cape Premier Zamani Saul in January 2020.

Half of the Eastern Cape is under disaster declaration. In September 2020, the Nelson Mandela Bay municipality declared it had reached Day Zero. However, this did not attract much attention from the national media. On television platforms, the declaration was more visible in chyrons than on newscasts.

Now, to complete this picture, we need to take a quick look at what is happening in municipalities around the country – although that is not completely a drought issue. Erratic rainfall and low water levels in dams are only half of the story. Management of water resources is a problem that has plagued the country for years. When Mbulelo Tshangana, the Acting Director-General of the Department of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation presented his department’s Annual Performance Plan to a parliamentary committee earlier this year, he revealed that:

  • Three million households did not have access to reliable drinking water and 14.1 million people did not have access to safe sanitation;
  •  Only 64% of households had access to a reliable water supply service;
  • 41% of municipal water did not generate revenue; 35% was lost through leakage, representing an annual loss of R9.9-billion;
  • 56% of wastewater treatment works and 44% of water treatment works were in a poor or critical condition and 11% were dysfunctional;
  • 33% of the remaining wetlands were critically endangered and more than 50% were already lost;
  • A R33-billion funding gap each year for the next 10 years had to be closed through improved revenue generation and reduced costs; and
  • Only 5% of agricultural water was used by black farmers.

The SABC reported on Monday 26 October 2020 that the Eastern Cape needs more than R120-billion to address its water problems. The investment shortfall for the entire country stands at R900-billion. Local media have shown queues for water in Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape that stretch for kilometres. It usually falls on women to fetch water and this activity often takes up many hours of their day. Irate communities have taken to the streets to demand water. Even the National Council of Provinces has been visiting some of these restive communities to gather information on the challenges they face.

The red lights were flashing earlier in 2020 when Ayanda Kota’s Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) sued the Makana municipality for failure to provide basic services to the local community at the Makhanda High Court and won. However, this landmark decision clearly did not cause enough people to sit up because the Department of Water and Sanitation was still struggling to install thousands of water tanks around the country when the coronavirus pandemic hit our shores.

The Department of Water and Sanitation has since installed more than 20,000 water tanks in some 200 municipalities around the country. However, the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (Copac) warns that this is not expected to make much of a difference because “the situation on the ground is still serious – many still do not have access to running water due to the drought as well as mismanagement of water by local authorities”.

This grim picture of water scarcity should lead to a complete rethinking of how water is used and managed in South Africa. The prevailing mentality in the country is still that the climate crisis is – to paraphrase the words of Kofi Annan – something that is going to happen in the future. It is an unappealing topic because it is happening in slow motion – not as sudden and dramatic as the Covid-19 pandemic and its concomitant shutdowns.

A number of things need to happen. 

First, water conservation has to become a national priority and every single household and entity in the country, public or private, must get involved in promoting sustainable water management practices. Water-conservation messages must become a permanent feature in all media.

Gwinyai Taruvinga of the Emancipatory Futures Studies programme at the University of the Witwatersrand suggests that more people will certainly pay more attention if the government also starts treating planetary heating like the emergency it is.

Second, we have to change how water is used and managed in all sectors of the economy. National and local governments should adopt green budgeting to advance environmental goals.

Finally, municipalities have to develop better capacity to not only provide water to households, but also to manage leaks, household water use and long-term investments in water infrastructure. BM/DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    A good article. As you note we need to do much more to control leaks. We do not have the water to throw away. I know money is tight, but councils will have to start to install smart water monitors that can detect leaks so that they are shut off quickly. As the saying is in industry – if you don’t measure it, you cannot control it.

  • Zane Erasmus Erasmus says:

    Water management and conservation is undeniably important at the delivery stage, and there is a lot as said in this article, that could and should be done.

    What is more important however, is what is happening in our never mentioned “Mountain Catchment Areas” (MCA’s) ? Research dated as far back as 1981 revealed that while the MCA’s covered only 8% of the country they still provided 49% of South Africa’s total annual runoff. This is where the water comes from that feeds our dams, that in turn irrigate our farms and supply municipalities with water.

    The MCA’s Act was proclaimed in 1970 and empowered government to manage the MCA’s, on both private and state land, so that the precious resource could be managed, protected and conserved. How were MCA’s managed ? Extensive study focussed on limnology, hydrology and fire ecology was conducted during the period of the mid 1950’s to the mid 1980’s. It was determined that if the vegetation covering the MCA’s was maintained in a natural and viable state, then it was possible to produce a “sustained” yield of high quality water. MCA’s were managed by managers who applied plans to control wild fires and the closely related spread of alien vegetation. These 2 dominant factors are inextricably linked and have the most impact on water yield.

    It is really uncertain what the status is of these MCA’s is today. I have watched how for the past 30 years, alien plant vegetation has spread uncontrolled throughout all our catchments. At the same time wild fires appear to be larger and more frequent and there is simply no sign of any notable management intervention at all. Dams and roads, and even tiered agricultural development has taken place within the MCA’s – something that was completely prohibited when the MCA’s act was enforced.
    I am aware that climate change has increased temperatures and this will be used to explain the frequent and large fires. But what should also be borne in mind is that we are currently in the midst of a 100 year drought. Fact is that droughts are natural and cyclical, and yes they can even be predicted. In fact 100 years ago South Africa was in the grips of the worst drought ever, and indeed, it was this drought that that encouraged government to establish why the rivers were drying up. Management of the MCA’s in various forms and legislative proclamations dates back to as early as 1934 ultimately reaching the stage where the Act was proclaimed in 1970.

    There is a great deal more that can be said about this subject – but the simple question remains – why does government ignore the MCA’s Act today when it is there to protect what is the most critical of all our natural resources?

  • Bruce Danckwerts says:

    A subject VERY close to my heart.
    I believe there are at least five distinct areas where we need to address the shortage of water: 1. We need to get more of the stuff to fall out of the sky. For this I believe we need to restore more tree cover throughout Southern Africa. The 100 year drought cycle that Zane talks about, COULD be related to a 100 year tree cycle. (Interested readers can e-mail me on [email protected] to discuss my thoughts further.) 2. We need to make sure that what little rain we do get is stored as much as possible IN THE SOIL, from whence it can seep out to keep our rivers flowing into the dry season – the MCAs that Zane was talking about. Or, as I like to tell my Small Scale neighbours, there is no point in praying for rain, unless we give God somewhere to put it. 3. We have to learn that sucking water out of underground aquifers does have a significant knock-on effect on all other aspects of the hydrological cycle. I suspect that the much lowered water tables in California and Australia must have contributed in no insignificant way to the increased forest fires 4. We have to use the water where it will give the best return per liter of water – as they do in Israel. The range can be enormous from 2 liters/$ of gross income for “dryland” tobacco, to 2,000 liters/$ for irrigated wheat and 20,000 liters for hydro-electricity. 4. Municipal or domestic water HAS to be managed a great deal better; tariffs should be much more flexible; the more you use (for irrigating your lawn perhaps) the very much more expensive it should become and it must be much more expensive in drought years, than in years of adequate supply. Also, Municipal water supply is a Common Pool Resource and as such should be subjected to Elinor Ostrom’s 8 Principles of CPR governance – the most important of which is Transparency. Eeeish there is work to be done! Bruce Danckwerts, CHOMA, Zambia

  • Lesley Young says:

    Thanks for the good article and comments. But… the one plan not mentioned is to catch the rain before it hits the ground. Every household in formal housing should have gutters and catchment tanks. Treated water should be banned for garden use unless recycled from baths, showers, washing machines etc. This would free up supplies to informal settlements. Plans should be made to catch floodwaters, which still happen regularly, and teach local communities how to set up hydraulic rams. No electricity required. And…and…and…

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    The recommendations of the article and respondents place a lot of emphasis on gov’t action; MCA act hasn’t been acted on since promulgated in the 70s and still isn’t. More fundamentally, we have elected leadership that is lifeless and mostly clueless. Unless we elect capable and motivated leadership we will shrivel in unanticipated drought or drown in unmanaged floods. If the US elections have taught us anything, you get what you vote for, and we have.

  • Helen Lachenicht says:

    Water, another victim of state dysfunction. Government needs to employ the best person for the job, with proven experience and track records.
    We need a plan: Immediately stop pumping effluent directly into our rivers; Desilt them (Hennops used to be about 5m deep, now knee deep – apparently mostly caused by erosion from our roads!);
    I was told in 2009, by respected “river man” Allan Batchelor, that rivers are self cleaning systems and in fact we have several well known rivers such as the Thames in England as examples. Allan said that rivers can be restored within a mere 7 year’s! Rivers are the arteries of our world, I guess like us humans, without them the world is at risk.
    We need a different toilet system water is too valuable for this function.
    Water tanks should be promoted in every way possible.
    No till farming apparently saves water.
    I get so frustrated reading about problems but so few solutions offered. If government can’t or won’t do this (another departmend hamstrung the usual drivel of today) we should take it into our own hands at all costs.


    In excess of 90% of the planet is water…we do not have a water problem … we have an ACCESS problem and then a STORAGE problem

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