Research undertaken by the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) reveals that only 8% of South Africa’s land surface provides 50% of the country’s water and that some of these areas are under threat from mining operations and climate change.
The technical assessment of the water source areas in South Africa was completed in January, assisted by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and WWF-SA plans to collabo- rate with government and water users to implement the best protection methods for these areas.
WWF-SA senior freshwater manager Christine Colvin says that South Africa is water stressed and there are only a few significant water-producing areas in the country.
She notes that the research, which was funded by investment management business Sanlam, was undertaken to identify the locations of the country’s strategic water sources and aims to identify and help deal with the threats to these sources by providing the knowledge needed to empower government and the private sector.
“The water source areas have been mapped and we are planning to use this research to inform government planning processes and other related developments,” she notes.
Some of the strategic water source areas in South Africa are the Drakensberg and the Mfolozi headwaters, in KwaZulu-Natal, and the Cape Fold Belt, the Boland Mountains and Groot Winterhoek, all in the Eastern Cape, as well as the Mbabane hills, in Swaziland.
The eastern escarpment of the country and the Cape Fold Belt hold 19 strategic water source areas, which supply catchments and downstream dams, while supporting most of the country’s economy.
Of the eastern escarpment water source areas, the Pongola Drakensberg area, for example, contains critical head- waters that sustain the Vaal, Tugela and Pongola river systems.
These areas and other criti- cal source areas in Lesotho and Swaziland are South Africa’s major water-production areas.
Demarcation of Water Source Areas Essential
Colvin says these areas need to be prioritised for develop- ment that does not disrupt water flow or quality.
“The WWF-SA research will enable planners to prioritise water provisioning in certain areas. As a water-scarce country, with 98% of our available water already allocated, a lack of water will limit economic growth and job creation if we do not protect the existing resources. “South Africa cannot afford to lose more water to alien vegetation, poorly planned mining or inappropriate short-term develop- ment, such as building in flood plains,” she stresses.
Further, the WWF-SA research high- lights which areas need to be the focus of prioritising healthy, functioning rivers to fill dams and satisfy the needs of downstream users.
It also emphasises natural ‘ecological infrastructure’ such as healthy, intact rivers, wetlands and aquifer systems, which Colvin says are the foundation of water provision.
She states that investments must be made to protect the natural infrastructure that delivers water to farms and cities downstream, otherwise investments in engineered infrastructure that rely on these features will be pointless.
“Natural assets must first be secure before constructing and maintaining built assets,” she declares.
Strategic planning for South Africa’s water security is vital and Colvin hopes the WWF-SA research will spur all government departments to play their part.
Spatially explicit planning at national and provincial level is needed to identify the compatibility of the country’s various landscapes for specific services and activities.
While some areas are productive arable land, others contain important mineral resources and some mark cultural and natural heritage. This research highlights that there are areas whose principal function is and should remain the strategic supply of water to the rest of the nation.
“We urgently need agreement at Cabinet level on how to fully use the landscape so that it is compatible with essential services for our development and for future generations of South Africa. “Our National Development Plan 2030 and the new draft of the National Water Resources Strategy agree on principles for sustainable development and water security,” says Colvin.
The WWF-SA research indicates where there is a need to limit damaging activities that compromise water resources.
Of the 8% of South Africa’s land surface that provides the country with the bulk of its water, only 16% has some form of conservation protection.
Worryingly, in the Pongola Drakensburg area, coal-prospecting licences that have been issued are a threat to the country’s long-term water security.
Colvin says the risk of water pollution in water source areas means that it is not economically viable to mine coal there.
Further, she says that the Boland Mountains need tighter control on stream- flow activities, such as forestry, and there should also be a greater focus on alien vegetation.
The WWF-SA research shows that the largest threat to South Africa’s water resources is forestry plantations, which cover 13% of the land surface of the 8% of the country’s land surface that provides 50% of the country’s water, while a further 15% of that 8% land surface is cultivated for agriculture.
Colvin says these land uses can be managed to improve water yields if buffer zones around rivers are maintained.