South Africa requires additional, specific laws to protect strategic water source areas or risk leaving the vast majority of the country’s water source areas highly vulnerable to inappropriate development, says University of Cape Town Institute of Marine and Environmental Law lecturer Amanda Mkhonza.
A significant volume of South Africa’s surface water originates from just 22 catchment areas that receive the highest rainfall and are deemed the “heart” of water supply “from which our rivers flow as blood vessels, carrying our lifeblood – our water resources – to sustain our entire country”.
“They are extremely important for the survival of South Africa’s water security and economy and are, therefore, known as strategic water source areas. Yet there is no specific law in place to protect them,” she says.
South Africa’s National Water Act recognises the protection of water resources, such as rivers, but not certain strategic water areas.
Further, although the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act provides various categories of protected areas, including national parks, nature reserves and mountain catchment areas, it makes no formal reference to the protection of strategic water source areas.
“Hence, only 13% of these areas enjoy some form of protection. These strategic water source areas, dotted across five provinces, cover only 8% of our land’s surface but supply us with 50% of our fresh water,” says Mkhonza, pointing out that these collectively support 60% of South Africa’s population, 67% of national economic activity and supply 70% of irrigation water.
She, therefore, urges the Department of Environmental Affairs to implement a relatively new provision in the National Environmental Management Act to empower the Environmental Affairs Minister to identify areas in which certain activities are either prohibited or restricted on certain terms and conditions.
This could prevent damaging activities, such as mining, in that identified area.
“Achieving this would be the quickest and biggest win for strategic water source areas in the short term, as it is already legally backed,” says Mkhonza.