Water Facts In South Africa

South Africa Bulletin from the headquarters of TAU SA in Pretoria Web: www.tlu.co.za Louis Meintjes   The average rainfall for South Africa is 470 mm per season, and 80% of that falls within five months of the year. While sixty two percent of this water is used by commercial agriculture, this figure must be seen in perspective. The reality is that this water is used to feed 48 million people in the country, and another reality is that the ground used to produce food has shrunk in size over the past few years. South Africa has never experienced a shortage of food – not yet – and this situation has been made possible by the intelligent and efficient use of the land, and the planting of new cultivars. Water and land in South Africa are thus optimally used by the commercial farming sector. We have now reached a point where the peak use of cultivars and land has been reached, and if we want to produce more food, we will have to plant more. If this is the case, we will need a sufficient amount of water and, at the same time, a certain amount of land. In order to optimize this use, South Africa needs the skills and knowledge of the commercial farming sector. Critical questions must now be posed: How much land and water is needed to ensure that South Africa is self-sufficient in food? Does the government really know what our current and future needs are? Does the government have a policy to protect agricultural land and if so, what is government policy with regard to the adequate provision of water to optimize the use of this land? The fact is that nine of the country’s catchments areas are already insufficient for the country’s needs. And according to international authorities, water sources in South Africa are already under pressure and are at a critical stage. Commercial farming is a business which should be grounded upon economic principles, and water is a cost and must be productive in order that this cost be justified. Thus Minister Sonjica’s remarks that farmers waste water is absurd. If we analyse the Minister’s criticism, we must take into account the fact that she used to be the Minister of Energy affairs. In that position she allowed the mining industry to mine productive agricultural ground, which was then debased. The resulting harvests from this ground showed that unreconstituted ground could only produce 1.6 tons of mielies (corn) per hectare, while productive undisturbed land produces more than 6 tons per ha. If this type of behavior continues and enough of our high productive land is tainted, then we will have a substantial shortage of mielies for our population. The Minister has also allowed mines to operate without necessary permits, thus increasing water pollution. This situation is especially bad within the mining area of Gauteng. (See Noseweek article quoted at the beginning of this Bulletin.) A recent study in the Gauteng area showed that 4,6% mine water is responsible for 78% of the pollution. The quality of water in the Witbank and Middelburg dams is so polluted that it is not even suitable to cool the power stations in the area, and Eskom must find alternative water sources for this purpose. If we look at the situation in Gauteng, the most heavily populated area of South Africa, and the solutions which are being offered, we can see that once again citizens must foot the bill to bring this polluted water up to standard. It is apparent that the problem caused by the mines will not be solved by the mining industry, and that there is no debate to try and solve the problem. In the meantime, the situation worsens as mines are worked out; as pump stations eventually close; and as polluted water sinks back into its original underground table. In the final analysis, the farmer sits with water in rivers and streams that is unusable. The effect of tainted water on agricultural products and farming soil is empirically itemised in the Meintjes report. The extent of the pollution in the Vaal River, for example, is revealed in detail. Taking into account the unabated growth of water plants in the river, it is clear that the pollution is now immeasurably high in the context of the area’s whole water system. The farmer is not the problem here – on the contrary, the farmer is on the receiving end of government neglect of the water system in the country, while he is unjustly and ignorantly blamed for the problem by incompetent officials and ministers! At the same time, it is expected of South Africa’s commercial farmers to produce quality food for a growing population while this same farmer must produce under adverse circumstances and with questionable resources over which he has no control! Another “new” problem facing South Africa is sewage pollution. There are two reasons for this – one is the low capacity of skills and competence in municipalities and the second is the lack of maintenance and upgrading of systems. More than 200 ratepayers’ organizations have entered into disputes with their municipalities (or are planning to do so) over this question. The biggest single problem is service delivery. In addition, as a result of poor planning (or no planning at all!), the upgrading of systems has not kept pace with the needs of the population and thus these systems cannot handle the sewage flow. This type of pollution has a definite impact on the quality of fresh produce being offered to the market, and it can even result in a health pandemic. Meintjes offers solutions which have been offered before to the government – that commercial farm land should be protected as a national strategic source; that ministers and civil servants should do the work properly for which they are paid; that water protection must be seen as a priority within any impact study program enacted; that these same impact studies should be holistic and take into account the role of the mining industry in any specified area; that rehabilitation programs should be established; and that emotional outbursts where farmers are falsely blamed for situations beyond their control, should stop forthwith so that the public can see the real role played by the farmer as part of the solution and not part of the problem when anything goes wrong.