Groundwater to play a key role in South Africa - WRC

22nd March 2011 By: Petronel Smit

The use of groundwater, in conjunction with surface water, could form a key part of the solution to South Africa’s water crisis, the Water Research Commission (WRC) said on Tuesday, which marks World Water Day.

WRC water research manager Dr Shafick Adams said the total volume of available, renewable groundwater in South Africa is 10,34-billion m3 a year.

“South Africa is currently using between 2-billion and 4-billion m3 a year of this groundwater. Therefore there is the potential to considerably increase groundwater supplies in South Africa,” he said at a media briefing.

In contrast, the WRC found that the assured yield of South Africa’s surface water resources was about 12-billion m3 a year, but more than 80% of this has already been allocated.

However, the fact that groundwater is not as easily measured as surface water, resulted in an incomplete understanding of the local hydrogeological conditions and poses numerous challenges.

Department of Water Affairs (DWA) officials, who attended the briefing hosted by the WRC, pointed out that South Africa has a strong groundwater research capacity, but conceded that the research was not always coordinated between institutions to the best advantage and that outcomes are not always implemented.

DWA hydrogeological resource analyst Fanus Fourie said groundwater was a safe, generally clean and reliable supply of water, and the development thereof tackled national priorities.

“Where available, groundwater can be moved over large distances. However, the challenge is to change perceptions about groundwater,” he noted.

DWA director of water resources planning systems Dr Beason Mwaka added that emerging challenges, such as the finitude of surface water and feasible development options to increase yield is diminishing, driving the DWA to consider other options, besides dams and transfer schemes, such as increased groundwater use, reuse of treated effluent and desalination of sea water.

“Current water challenges include increasing waste water flow from industry and homes, the diminishing of fresh water resources and illegal water abstractions. Further, the cost of water is set to increase and the shortage of skilled staff also poses significant challenges, along with the wide and remote distribution of water resources,” he explained.

Fourie elaborated on the DWA’s groundwater strategy, explaining that groundwater was recognised as an important strategic water resource in South Africa, in an integrated water resource management approach.

“The National Water Act provides a powerful set of regulatory tools with which to manage groundwater and regulate its use. The challenge is one of implementation,” he noted.

He added that the most recent scientific estimates place groundwater in South Africa in the same league, volumetrically, as the stored surface water resources. The challenge remained to optimally develop and manage groundwater as part of the total resource.

“We must manage groundwater in a sustainable manner, by implementing a number of diverse interventions, such as knowledge management and cooperative governance,” said Fourie.

Mwaka added that optimal systems operation should be implemented for saving and equitable water distribution, and that water collection and water demand management should be implemented, including infrastructure rehabilitation and maintenance.

Other possible solutions for increasing water security and delivery included implementing water monitoring systems for accountability and early warning, as well as capacity building of staff, users and management institutions. Continuous research for new and improved management technologies and moving from inefficient to efficient water use was also mentioned.

A key theme of the groundwater strategy was institutional capacity, functioning and support, meaning water management institutions must be structured and mandated in such a way that groundwater development and management can be optimally achieved.

It was hoped the groundwater strategy document would be signed off by the DWA in the next six months, after which it would be incorporated into the DWA strategic plan and the second edition of the National Water Resources Strategy.