Water the new gold
South Africa’s battle to find enough water to feed its industries and households is going to get tougher – and the country’s economic hub, Gauteng, is especially threatened.
Our biggest water resource, the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, is struggling to keep up with the demand from South Africa. Reports coming out of Lesotho suggest that more and more people are moving out of the countryside and into the towns, with the result that that country’s government is having to reserve more of its water for the use of its own citizens. The SA Weather Service says no end to the drought is in sight.
Lesotho has been hard hit by the drought. More than 700000 of its people, according to aid agencies, have been badly affected, their situation worsened by most of the country’s water going to South Africa. But it is this water that drives South Africa’s economy and most of its power station, many of which are situated in Mpumalanga.
Water Affairs Ministry spokesman Mlimandlela Ndamase told The Times on Friday that the Katse and Mohale dams, which supply the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, were at 59.7% and 25.5% of their capacity respectively. Mohale is a feeder dam for Katse.
Agriculture Minister Senzeni Zokwana said on Friday that South Africa’s food security was seriously threatened by the drought. He said maize farmers, who had missed the harvesting period because of the failure of the rains, had been encouraged to plant other crops. A consequence is that South Africa might have to import 10million tons of maize. Added to the food security risk is that South Africa, according to Rural Development Minister Gugile Nkwinti, might have to supply Lesotho with food as part of “a standing agreement on realising water from their dams.”
Ndamase played down concerns about water shortages in South Africa, saying that although there was a drought that did not mean that there was no water. “We still have dams that are full, with Katse dam, which is still at a healthy level, feeding the Vaal River system, which is 70% full.
“The Lesotho Highlands Water Project is just one of the water feeder systems to Gauteng. The entire Vaal River system is secure.” Eskom spokesman Khulu Phasiwe said the utility were not concerned by the drought.
“Of our four hydro-power schemes, three are operational, and the fourth, at Gariep Dam, has been shut down for precautionary measures, although Water Affairs has told us that we can continue operating it. “Our other power stations are able to compensate for this until the water situation improves.”
Phasiwe said Eskom would consider the water situation in Lesotho critical only when dam levels in South Africa dropped to 30% of capacity. Experts, however, believe otherwise and are sounding alarm bells. Energy analyst Ted Blom said the low levels of Lesotho’s dams was a threat to this country’s survival.
“Although we can make do for now without hydro-power from Mozambique we cannot do so without the water from Lesotho. “If the Katse dam drops anywhere near 25% of capacity there will be hell to pay, because Katse feeds all of Gauteng. It also feeds the cooling systems of the Mpumalanga power stations, which provide up to 95% of South Africa’s power.
“If we can’t keep those power stations cool with millions of litres of water an hour, there will be blackouts.” Water expert Anthony Turton, said of the dams’ levels: “The [Lesotho Highland Water project] is the water tower of Gauteng.”
Turton said that once a dam had fallen to 60% of its capacity the decrease from then was rapid. He said that Mohale, at 25% of capacity, was getting to the point at which it could no longer function.
Turton said Gauteng got its water from three sources: the old Zuurbekom, Sterkfontein dam and the Lesotho Highlands Project. The problem with Zuurbekom, Turton said, is that it is being affected by acid mine drainage on the West Rand.
Agathe Maupin, a senior researcher at the SA Institute of International Affairs, said that although bilateral agreements ensured that the Lesotho Highlands Water Project could not be unilaterally “turned off”, South Africa should be aware of the situation it faced.
“The measures that we have seen to date to get water from Lesotho into drought stricken areas, especially the Free State and Eastern Cape, are emergency measures. They are not sustainable. She said there must be a change in South Africa’s consumption of water, especially in cities such as Johannesburg. She said there had to be great improvement in the maintenance of water-supply infrastructure. The country loses 30% of its water through leaking and broken pipes.
“If things are not improved there will be water cuts.” Maupin said migration, while not caused by the drought, was exacerbated by it. “The South African government, like the rest of SADC, must foresee and prepare for [increased migration] caused by populations fleeing the drought.