Heavy rains and floods came, but where is the water?

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South Africa is a relatively dry and drought prone country. The rainfall is generally low and erratic with a mean annual precipitation in the order of 500mm compared to the world average of 860mm. Some 21% of South Africa receives less than 200 mm/a. The country has limited water resources and is ranked globally amongst the twenty most water-scarce countries.

The distribution of these resources has, to a large degree, dictated the establishment of settlements, routes of migration and man’s mode of living. The historic importance of the water resources can be gauged by the hundreds of town and farm names relating to water, such as Bloemfontein, De Aar In terms of South Africa’s overall water consumption, groundwater contributes only some 15% of the total volume consumed (DWAF, 2002).

This percentage belies the fact that over 300 towns and 65% of the population are entirely dependent upon this resource for their water supply. Lack of reliable hydrogeological information has been identified as one of the reasons why groundwater has generally not been developed to its full potential. It is estimated that some 12 million people are still without an adequate supply of water to meet their basic needs.

Over 80% of South Africa is underlain by relatively low-yielding, shallow, weathered and/or fractured-rock aquifer systems. By contrast, appreciable quantities of groundwater can be abstracted at relatively high-rates from dolomitic and quartzitic aquifer systems located in the northern and southern parts of the country, respectively, as well as from a number of primary aquifers situated along the coastline

“Whoever you are, wherever you are, water is your human right” reads the slogan of the 2019 United Nations World Water Day. After the 2018 crisis in Cape Town, South Africans know that although water may be a human right, it is not necessarily guaranteed. Despite receding from the headlines, water security remains a concern for millions of South Africans.

The National Integrated Water Information System (NIWIS) from the Department of Water and Sanitation monitors the country’s river and dam levels by major catchment. The NIWIS rank rivers on a six-tiered scale from “very low” to “high” (see graph below). As of 12 March, water storage levels in South Africa were at approximately 64%, or rated low for this time of year.

Although South Africa’s surface water storage levels are typically at their lowest during the summer months, and the country has recovered a bit since the drought of 2014 and 2015, this new normal is significantly less resilient than the previous one. On 3 March 2014, national dam levels were at nearly 90%. In March 2015, they were nearly 80%.

South Africa’s national surface water storage has not been rated even “moderately high” in over four years. South Africa’s dam levels over time sheds light on the level of water stress in South Africa at the height of the drought, and the gradual and fragile nature of the recovery. But, the worrying factor is that in the past weeks we experienced a deluge of heavy downpours which, unfortunately instead of being some sort of a welcoming relief, instead did the opposite causing deaths, destructions and mayhem.

Despite those floods and heavy rains South Africa faces a crisis as experts warn of a total collapse of the water system. We are officially a water-constrained economy. Yes, large parts of the country at that time had enough water to meet demand, but the resource just “disappeared.” Looking at been in the grip of drought for years but “In 2002 South Africa officially became desperate for more water availability.

The challenge that we have as a country is that we are unable to capture most of the water primarily because of failing municipal sewer systems. This water all becomes a product of a runoff where the water is lost. Capturing this water will help us to reduce in assisting the disaster that emanates from those floods by directing the water accordingly.

The end result is that we experience floods that destroy water and sanitation projects because of failure by municipalities to properly maintain infrastructure. Research has found out that the Free State and the growing urban populations could even already using 98% of our available water. Should our rainfall be lower than average, it might be necessary to increase restrictions.

South Africans got a glimpse of what (WW’F) SA predicts that by 2030 the country will have serious water demand resulting in great shortages of up to 117%. As winter creeps in, water usage becomes a demand.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) has warned water users and communities to conserve water because we are fast approaching the winter season and the shortage of water remains a great worry for the government. In an effort to mitigate the situation, the Eastern Cape government has invested R1, 2billion to assist municipalities that are experiencing water shortage as a result of drought.

Pollution of the country’s water resources has a negative impact on the quality of this life-giving means. Pollution takes place either as a point source such as discarding of waste through the end of a pipe, or as a diffuse source whereby fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fuel, diesel, oil and other objects find their way into the groundwater source.

It is important to stress that pollution is caused by man. Our activities will always have impacts, but the requirement is that these impacts are minimal, manageable and within acceptable  limits, according to relevant environmental legislation, the National Management Act (Act no 107 of 1998, Chapter 7, section 28 and the National Water Act (Act no 36 of 1998, Chapter 3, part 4 section 19. These Acts deal with the prevention of pollution.

The water sector has made good progress in co-operation towards that objective. Nobody expects everybody to be in agreement on all policies; nobody is forced to do anything they do not want to; but we all realise that we are working in our own different ways towards achieving a common goal – accessibility of clean and drinkable water to the masses.


Ike Motsapi is a  Principal Communications Officer for the Department of Water and Sanitation.