Illegal dam construction and unnecessary costs

It is no secret that South Africa is under pressure regarding water resource management. Complicating matters is that water resource management is not one dimensional, it involves the government, the users (agriculture, mining, domestic, industrial, etc.), and the environment.

Our water supplies come from catchments, rivers, wetlands, and aquifers and if these resources are degraded or reduced, it is the downstream users who are negatively affected, not to mention the spin-off effect on the socio-economic impact. This negative effect is intensified by the fact that South African water resources have been under severe stress over the past years, which is mostly related to an increase in water demand due to the increase in population, aging of infrastructure, bad management, illegal impeding of water systems or abstraction of water, water quality degradation, and climate volatility (prolonged drought seasons).

Our national demand is projected to increase by 32% (to 17 700 million m3 ) by 2030 due to population growth and industrial development (Water Facts & Futures: Rethinking South Africa’s Water Future, WFF Report 2016). While the agricultural sector is the largest water user in South Africa that uses about 62% of the available high-quality water to produce agricultural products, it is also the backbone of our economy and food security provider. Therefore the relationship between agricultural production and water use must evolve and transform because simply put, there is not enough water available in South Africa to sustain the increase in demand. Currently, to produce 1kg of grain, a 1000L of high-quality water is required, while 1kg of beef requires 45 000l of water (SAIMM, 2020). These are large amounts that should put into perspective the need for water.

There are many ways to reduce water use: alternative farming techniques can be adapted to reduce water use, irrigation scheduling, recycled water from acid mine drainage or sewage plants, etc. Most of these alternatives are however not cheap or readily available and generally, most farmers continue with traditional farming methods, but to keep up with the demand decides to store water for the increase of abstraction. Unfortunately, due to 1) the financial costs involved in applying for a water use right to store water and get the environmental authorization; and 2) desperate need to save crops and animals from drought conditions and simply do not have the time to wait for the approval process to be completed, many farmers construct dams illegally.

Our water resources are governed by the Water Services Act of 1997 and the National Water Act (NWA) of 1998. These laws contain provisions for the protection, use, development, conservation, management, and control of South African water resources. Amazingly, South Africa was also one of the first countries to enact a law that allocates water specifically for use by the environment.

What does this mean? While water users apply for the right to abstract water from a water resource, the NWA limits the overuse of a water system. This allows for water to be freely available to the downstream environment to sustain the living resources or ecology. This is adequality referred to as the Ecological Reserve.

So, between this tension of increasing water demand (users) and sustaining the ecology (environment), the Department of Water and Sanitation is the governing authority that allocates water use, in this case, to the farmers. The problem is that most of the reliable surface water has been allocated and the question has to be asked, what does this mean for farmers? It means that even if they apply for water use to store water, there is a possibility that it will not be allocated. Ultimately, this might be the main reason why the illegal construction of dams is occurring in South Africa.

In 2018, The South African online newspaper reported that according to the Department of Water and Sanitation, 1 000 illegal dams are syphoning water from the Kouga River and its network of tributaries in the Eastern Cape. Today this is one example of the devastating effects of these illegal dams, bad management, bad planning and maintenance, and the continued drought conditions, with the Kouga dam being 6.87% at capacity. So the impact is now not only felt by the farmers along the Kouga River but also the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan and Kouga Municipality are suffering the ripple effect of water restrictions for the past 5 years and even reservoirs running dry with many households and businesses being without water for days. In some parts of the Eastern Cape, there have been towns without water for a year.

Understandably there are many issues to address, but one of them is that the Department of Water and Sanitation is clamping down on illegal dams. Through basic GIS software and satellite imagery, the Department can easily identify water bodies and these can then be verified if the property has a water use right or not. If not, the user is in contravention of the NWA and can face fines and possible instruction to rehabilitate the stream environment and remove the dam wall structure. Financially this can be a very high cost to pay for the farmer.

The level of impact on downstream users and the environment due to storing water in a stream system is ultimately determined by the constant release / or lack of release of water from the dam and the consistency thereof. If sufficient water is released constantly (via sluices or pipes with valves to open and close water release), the impact on downstream flow should not be negatively impacted. If the release of water is restricted (stream water is only released once it reached the dam’s overflow point), it will negatively impact the downstream flow. The problem with most illegal dams is it only releases water into the system once the dam reaches its overflow capacity. This does not only harm the riparian environment/ecology below the dam but will also lead to negative socio-economic impacts, as downstream farmers will not have water to irrigate their crops and lands, which could lead to income loss and job losses. Not to mention the risk of the dam wall collapse and flooding.

The financial cost, the environmental cost, and the socio-economic cost of illegal dams are simply not worth it and with many parts of South African water resources under scrutiny, farmers with illegal dams will soon face the full extent of the law.

The way forward for farmers is:

  • To start planning for droughts (invest in applying for water use rights well ahead of time);
  • Consider the downstream users and the environment as another ‘water user’ and design dams that can release sufficient water into the system continuously;
  • Do not construct dams illegally, it will be highly costly and not worth it;
  • Investigate and invest in alternative farming methods and irrigation possibilities to reduce water use on the farm;
  • Consider alternative crop production that is drought tolerant;
  • Consider soil and hydropedology studies to understand the relationship between the soil and water flow paths. This can assist in identifying which crops are most suited for the land and how to maximize the natural water resources on the farm.

The value of water is priceless and it is the livelihood for all of us. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of all South Africans to adopt the concept of good water stewardship, from using water responsibly in-house, on farms and industries, and to recycle, reuse, or recover wherever possible. All water users must use and share water fairly to sustain the environment as well as the economy.