National 10.9.2016 08:01 am

In the grip of great drought

The Vaal River system serves about 45% of South Africa’s population and is getting drier by the day.

There is something unnatural about standing on the inside of a dam wall, looking up at the sluice gates which are supposed to control the flow of water.

One’s instinct is to keep looking back in case a wall of water is rushing at tsunami speed to fill the vacuum. Yet only the high pitched “peet, peet, peet” of a small bird as it flies off cracks the eerie silence, disturbed from snacking on one of the numerous fish carcasses littering the exposed rocky bottom of the Vaal Dam.

It’s as if the dam has returned to its beginnings when it was but a puddle. It is barely alive, holding its breath, waiting for something to happen, anything to happen. Hopefully the dam – and by implication, the public – can hang on for a little longer because the South African Weather Service has predicted there will be little relief before the end of summer. And we’re going to need a lot of relief.

At the G20 agriculture ministers’ meeting in Xi’an, China, in June, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Senzeni Zokwana said Africa was “under the grip of the worst drought for years in record and memory”. “The domestic economies in our continent affected by drought have taken a sharp knock, with projected staple food price hikes likely to continue unabated. The steep food prices could push most households to more serious vulnerability status,” Zokwana warned.

“It is business unusual as we try to cushion poverty-stricken households against the effects of drought and their snowballing effect on food inflation.” Back home, the department of water affairs’ 2010 “Position Statement on the Vaal River System and Acid Mine Drainage” states the Vaal River system “includes most of Gauteng, Eskom’s power stations and Sasol’s petrochemical plants on the Mpumalanga highveld, the North-West and Free State goldfields, Kimberley, several small towns along the main course of the river, as well as irrigation all along the main stem of the river and the large Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme”.

“The Vaal River system meets the water resource needs of 60% of the national economy and serves 20 million people (approximately 45% of South Africa’s population) in the country,” the paper states. Obviously, five years later, those numbers have changed.

Map of the Vaal River System from the Department of Water Affairs’ 2010 Position Statement on the Vaal River System and Acid Mine Drainage.

Map of the Vaal River System from the Department of Water Affairs’ 2010 Position Statement on the Vaal River System and Acid Mine Drainage.

It is from this system Rand Water feeds the City of Gold and its 5 million-odd residents, and has cut Johannesburg’s water supply by 15%. Rand Water’s customers include “metropolitan municipalities, local municipalities, mines and industries and it supplies, on average, 3 653 million litres of water to these customers daily”, according to its website. Around the country, Nelson Mandela Bay has to cut 60 million litres from its daily consumption, the Orange River is under water restrictions for the first time in 24 years, and the Caledon River, bordering Lesotho, is under a 75% water restriction.

South Africa, with eight provinces having been declared disaster areas, is not the only one hurting. Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe have all declared national emergencies.

A recent study – Timescales of transformational climate change adaptation in sub-Saharan African agriculture – published by Nature Climate Change in March, has reported “potential transformational changes for all major crops during the 21st century, as climates shift and areas become unsuitable”.

The study says as far as South Africa is concerned, there could be a “highly likely need to move out of crop-based agriculture”.

“These areas total 0.8Mha and were located in the dry zones of South Africa.

Currently, 2.7 million tons of maize are produced in these affected regions,” the study found. In an economy itself showing a paucity of flow, these are not the things credit ratings agencies like hearing. And while bankers in their suits and farmers in their khakis try to stare each other down across perfectly tilled fields waiting for a hint of cloud to break our beautifully blue skies – one waiting for the jingle of coin and the other for the tinkle of rain – it’s time to take water restrictions seriously.



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