There are potential mining zones – in coal, platinum and chrome, for instance – in the northern parts of provinces like Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga. In many of these, growth has in fact already taken place – but water supply is not keeping up, says consulting firm SRK Consulting partner and principal hydrologist Peter Shepherd.
“South Africa wants economic growth, but without reliable water supply, this is a pipe dream. Wherever there is a business and people, we need water to sustain them.”
The country has reached the point where the availability of water in new development zones can no longer be guaranteed, warns Shepherd. Much of South Africa’s future economic development will take place in areas where water has traditionally not been plentifully supplied.
“Expanding our agricultural sector will mean facing the same constraints. Our burgeoning cities and towns demand an increasing share of the limited national water resources, increasingly competing with industry. “Already, there are many municipalities unable to foster local economic development, owing to their lack of ability to provide a reliable supply of water.”
Meanwhile, he notes that recent news on the long-awaited expansion of the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme is heartening. “This will hopefully ensure a measure of certainty in meeting the future requirements of Gauteng, the country’s economic heartland.” However, this will not be sufficient as it will not be able to supply beyond Gauteng – into the Olifants and Limpopo catchments.
Shepherd notes that there will have to be more water sourced for these areas and that more efforts should be made to conserve water. “In agriculture, water-saving techniques like drip irrigation instead of overhead sprinklers will become more common. Such trends have already had considerable impact in applications like KwaZulu-Natal’s sugar cane segment.”
Further, mines has been proactive for some time in reducing, reusing and recycling water, he says. The sector has also been part of pioneering partnerships that could hold the key to the looming water constraints described above.
Shepherd adds that a good example of this model was the R195-million Lebalelo water-supply scheme, commissioned in Limpopo in 2002. The scheme was to supply 84 000 kℓ of raw water a day from the Olifants river to farms and mines making up the Lebalelo Water User Association (LWUA). Five dams were built, the largest being the 537-million-litre Havercroft dam.
“Made possible by investment from the private sector, the scheme also facilitated access to water by communities in the area.”
He notes that after 15 years, the LWUA was successfully disestablished and the facilities incorporated into Lepelle Northern Water, the State-owned water utility based in Polokwane. “This model will need to be rolled out in other water-scarce areas where economic potential for development and job creation exist.”
Importantly, water provision must include not only those who can pay upfront for the infrastructure; any public–private partnership will have to consult effectively with communities – and ensure that these communities are not excluded when water starts to flow, says Shepherd.
Additionally, he adds that government policies – along with the political will and the departmental expertise – are cornerstones of such partnerships. “Long planning timelines are required, perhaps up to a decade or more. In the short term, groundwater will be a focus of water supply efforts – but the availability of these resources will vary with climate and rainfall.”
He concludes that, in the long run, we may need to be more ambitious, raising our horizons to look north into neighbouring countries and beyond. “The thought of piping water from the Zambezi river may today seem like a fantasy, but may in time enter the frame of options. “It will certainly need visionary commitment, close collaboration among many stakeholders across transnational boundaries, disciplined planning and multidisciplinary expertise and experience.”