Poor water management threatens South Africa’s crown jewel

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Poor water management threatens South Africa’s crown jewel

Elephants cross the Sabie River at Skukuza, 8 November 2019. Picture: Amanda Watson

When rain falls in the Kruger National Park everyone and everything is relatively easy, but when it doesn’t, water in- and outputs need to be managed.

If proper water management in the rivers in the north of the Kruger National Park doesn’t start happening soon during the “protracted dry period” the park finds itself in, there could be damaging fallout to both people and the park which could hurt the economy of two countries and take years to recover. “There are five perennial rivers which flow from west to east, from South Africa to Mozambique. Starting in the south is the Crocodile, then the Sabie, Olifants, Letaba and Luvuvhu rivers,” said Dr Eddie Riddell, water resources manager at Kruger.

Dr Eddie Riddell, water resources manager at the Kruger National Park, 7 November 2019. Picture: Amanda Watson

Riddell’s expanded job description is Strategic Adaptive Water Resource Management for Aquatic-Linked Ecosystem Conservation: providing managerial and governance leadership for the implementation of adaptive river system operations for ecological preservation in a geo-politically and socio-economically complex setting; and ensuring adaptable biodiversity outcomes for river system conservation in the Kruger National Park and delivery of the ecosystem goods and services for humans and nature in the Lowveld landscape – one which he admitted didn’t allow for too much sleep with the stresses involved.

“They represent about 600km of river sections within the park while there are about 20,000km of seasonal and ephemeral rivers. Our work is focussed primarily on the perennial rivers,” Riddell said.

“We work through a process called integrated water resource management under the National Water Act. One of the tools under the act is a section called environmental water requirements.”

These river systems also do not belong exclusively to South Africa.

According to a department of environmental affairs discussion paper on water, major river basins of South Africa (Nkomati, Limpopo, Maputo, Orange-Senqu, Thukela and Umbeluzi) are shared with Lesotho, eSwatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia.

“There are four major transboundary basins containing 40% of available water resources (DWAF 2004). These include the Limpopo Basin which covers South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, the Komati Basin covering South Africa, eSwatini, and Mozambique, the Maputo/Usuthu Basin covering South Africa, eSwatini and Mozambique, and the Orange basins across Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho and Namibia,” the environmental outlook stated.

At more than two million hectares including its concessionaires, the Kruger shares borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and straddles both Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces – and water from all of the aforementioned water basins – together with everyone on its borders and the more than a million visitors the park receives each year.

When rain falls everyone and everything is relatively easy, but when it doesn’t, water in- and outputs need to be managed.

North and central Kruger only recently escaped the 2015-16 drought during which the perennial rivers never ceased flowing, as a result of coordination with the national department, irrigation boards and NGOs, most notably the Association for Water and Rural Development.

Now, the south of the park is also being stressed by a protracted dry period, as Riddell, put it, while they waited for the rains to arrive.

Which could be a while, as Department of Human Settlements, Water & Sanitation Minister Lindiwe Sisulu commented recently, with dam-filling rains in Gauteng only expected to arrive in December.

Under the water act, rights were given to the environment and humans, with humans receiving 25l of water per person per day, explained Riddell, and these have to be provided for before other uses can take place.

Each main river has its own water flow target, which is paired with a quality target – a slightly “trickier thing to manage, but we’re getting there,” Riddell said.

Stakeholders include the Department of Water and Sanitation and the Inkomati-Usuthu Catchment Management Agency which makes decisions at local level regarding the Crocodile and Sabie – the latter being a “flagship” river for maintaining Kruger’s “flagship” aquatic biodiversity rivers, said Riddell.

“Three years after the drought, now we’ve started to see some problems, and these aren’t entirely unexpected,” Riddell said.

It’s in the north of the park where there are no catchment management agencies where those problems such as financing for maintenance of infrastructure such as ageing gauging weirs, effective management of all users through water users associations and irrigation boards, controlling unlawful water usage, and a hands-off approach to water management are beginning to impact people, the economy, and environment.

This meant if Riddell needed action on one of the three northern rivers, he had to call the national water and sanitation department for permission to release water from a dam to keep the rivers flowing.

“The Olifants is flowing at about 25% of what it should be under drought conditions, which is about 2 cubic meters per second, so we’re at about half a cubic metre per second. The Letaba river has too all intents and purposes stopped flowing and the Luvuvhu is just at where we need it,” said Riddell.

He explained while it was anticipated that the Letaba would stop flowing due to certain issues, the KNP did not want to see the Olifants stop flowing as well.

“We don’t want to see any rivers stopping flowing, but it would be unacceptable to see two rivers stopping flowing.” Riddell said.

“In reality there would be enough water for the animals in pools, the reality is animals typically die of hunger in a drought but the impacts on the biodiversity of the aquatic ecosystems could be quite significant.”

And, if the management of the northern rivers isn’t sorted out, the park could be very different ten years from now.

“But I think we’re getting there, we’re just in a tough time because of all the political elements which have happened over the past few years which have impacted on the department to function fully, but we’ll get through it and I think the fact we have the IUCMA in the southern region helps a lot,” Riddell said.

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