Dire water shortages from rivers running dry in the Eastern Cape and the central and southern part of the Western Cape, in what AgriSA terms the “worst drought in 130 years”, have focused attention on the lack of regional infrastructure plans and a regulating authority to oversee water pricing.
Emergency measures have had to be taken, including trucking in water and a planned desalination plant at Knysna to avert a disaster facing mainly dairy and vegetable farmers, who have dedicated supply lines to retail outlets but have cut back on their production. AgriSA Western Cape chief executive Carl Opperman said: “This will have a ripple effect down the supply chain ultimately.”
AgriSA predicted that countless farmers were facing insolvency in the coming year. It blamed this on years of neglect of infrastructure with no significant dams being built for lean times, as well as departmental dilly-dallying on allowing farmers to raise farm dam capacity.
At present, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Buyelwa Sonjica determines water prices after negotiating with water boards, which sell water to municipalities. The argument is that an independent water regulator would provide the platform for realistic prices.
Opperman said a number of southern Cape rivers running from the Outeniqua Mountains ran into the sea within six hours of rain falling in the catchment area. This water could otherwise be stored.
For example, the Ernest Robertson Dam on the Groot Brak River near George in the southern Cape is 90 percent full but its capacity is just 0.4 million cubic metres. The Wolwedans Dam on the same river, with a capacity of 25 million cubic metres, is 39 percent full, down from more than 90 percent a year ago.
The Garden Route Dam on the Swart River has a capacity of 9 million cubic metres but is now only 30 percent full, down from 92 percent a year ago, according to the Department of Water Affairs.
While the department said consideration was being given to new dams in Transkei and the southern Cape, the small size of the latter’s existing dams could be measured against Cape Town’s main supply dam, Theewaterskloof on the Riviersonderend, which was 92 percent full and had a capacity of 480 million cubic metres.
Cornelius Ruiters, the water affairs deputy director-general, said there was an argument in favour of setting up regional water regulatory authorities similar to those in water-stressed countries such as Australia and Mexico.
Nick Segal, a former head of UCT’s business school, has written a report on water stress for Business Leadership SA and estimates that there is a R100 billion backlog in spending on water infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Reuters reported that water was being pumped from the Orange River from a tunnel at Gariep Dam in the Free State into the Fish River to ensure appropriate supply for the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropole in the Eastern Cape.
The metro includes Despatch, Port Elizabeth and Uitenhage, which house major motor plants. They would normally be suffering severe water shortages were it not for diverted water caught in the Lesotho Highlands.
The most affected southern Cape towns include George, Knysna, Wilderness and Plettenberg Bay.