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The earth has an abundance of water, covering some 70% of the surface area of our planet. Unfortunately, only 2,5% of available water is fresh and drinkable, while only 1% is accessible and not part of a glacier or snowfield. This makes water an extremely scarce resource that must be managed to the best of our ability.

South Africa ranks as the 30th driest country in the world. Surface water resources supply roughly 77% of South Africa’s freshwater, while groundwater resources supplement another 19%. The remaining 14% consists of recycled water.

Due to the geographical nature of our country, South Africa’s water resources are limited. However, water scarcity can be attributed to more than just environmental factors. A lack of infrastructure and economic development is the primary reason why 19% of rural communities do not have access to water.

South Africa’s water consumption

The agricultural sector remains the largest consumer of water in South Africa and is responsible for 67% of total water consumption in the country. Domestic consumption contributes a further 15% to total water consumption, and service delivery 7%, while manufacturing and mining operations are responsible for 5 and 3%, respectively.

Although South Africa is a dry country, our tap water is considered to be of a high standard and the country has one of the largest populations with access to potable tap water. On the other hand, the quality of our groundwater varies considerably and is therefore not a sustainable source of freshwater for human consumption.

In addition, the pressure is expected to increase on the sources that supply water to our largest cities – Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria – with domestic and industrial demand continuing to rise. The Berg water management area – which includes Cape Town – will have to increase its water supply by an estimated 28% in order to meet future demand.

National water legislation

Water in South Africa is governed by two sets of legislation, namely the National Water Act, 1998 (Act 36 of 1998) or NWA and the Water Services Act, 1997 (108 of 1997) or WSA.

The NWA controls the protection of aquatic ecosystems and thus regulates the licencing of water for commercial use. This includes ground- and surface water for agricultural and industrial use. The NWA regulates the sustainability of water consumption, so that its availability is preserved for future generations.

The WSA is responsible for ensuring that every South African has access to clean drinking water, and that sanitation is included as a constitutional right. Through this legislation, government can regulate the water consumption of households and ensure that it is consumed sustainably.

South Africa is frequently praised for the standard of our legislation regulating water consumption and our focus on sustainability, but the lack of implementation and good governance of these laws present a major challenge. The absence of law enforcement and management is of great concern, as South Africa is already consuming 98% of the available water supply.

In addition to high consumption, urbanisation is putting the water supply in cities under strain. It is estimated that by 2030, South Africa will be experiencing a water shortage of 17% due to escalating domestic and industrial consumption.

Guidelines for agricultural water

The NWA notes four overarching categories of water consumption, namely domestic, industrial and agricultural, and consumption for recreational purposes. The South African Water Quality Guidelines consist of eight sections, each focussing on a specific category. Part 5 centres on the water consumption of livestock – here, specific reference is made to the water consumption requirements of different livestock species.

These requirements differ according to animals’ age and weight, as well as the temperature of the environment. Mention is also made of the permitted levels of elements, metals and foreign substances present in water for livestock. Part 4 focusses on irrigation with specific reference to water quality and irrigation practices.

Prospective plans

During 2019, the National Treasury released a report titled Economic transformation, inclusive growth and competitiveness in a bid to steer South Africa in a more sustainable direction. The report discussed the five fundamental building blocks for long-term growth and went on to set out a series of specific and detailed reforms to increase potential growth.

These reforms are based on the National Development Plan (NDP) and are listed according to themes, namely:

  • Modernising network industries.
  • Lowering barriers to entry and addressing distorted patterns of ownership through increased competition and small business growth.
  • Prioritising labour-intensive growth in agricultural and service sectors.
  • Implementing focussed and flexible industrial and trade policies.
  • Promoting export competitiveness and harnessing regional growth opportunities.

Water and water management are part of the main discussions under some of these themes. This report also pays specific attention to the role of water in agricultural production. Some of the recommendations are subsequently discussed in this article.

Modernising network industries

According to the report, a significant volume of water is lost from the country’s water supply systems. This is concerning, seeing that the country’s water resources are already constrained. Lost water constitutes 25% of total water consumption and 68% of water that generates no revenue.

The problem can be attributed to old and poorly maintained infrastructure, a complex institutional structure, costs that are not adequately covered by water tariffs, and entities that face significant technical, financial and management challenges.

South Africa will not be able to pursue the goals of inclusive growth and economic transformation if faced with limited water supplies. According to the 2019 budget review, R90,4 billion was allocated to water infrastructure projects between 2019/20 and 2021/22. However, a comprehensive management strategy for investments in water resource development, bulk water supply and wastewater management is urgently needed.

We also need to learn from the success of the Independent Power Producers (IPP) programme in the electricity sector and adapt this model for water supply. Government is busy developing suitable institutional service delivery options by creating regional water and wastewater resources and expanding the mandates of existing water boards.

Government is also in the process of establishing an independent water regulator to improve the overall efficiency of water supply and to ensure appropriate pricing. In addition, a national water saving programme must be put in place to limit water wastage and alleviate demand in urban areas.

Irrigation water and market access

According to the National Planning Commission, access to water and irrigation systems is crucial for unlocking more investment opportunities in agriculture. Agriculture, which consumes more than 60% of available surface water, is the largest water user in the country.

This ever-increasing need for water, exacerbated by climate uncertainty, puts agriculture at the back of the queue in terms of access to additional water resources. It is possible to expand the 1,5 million hectares currently under irrigation in South Africa by improving the consumption of existing resources and developing new water schemes.

Existing investment in initiatives aimed at reducing the loss in potential cropping areas and production due to inefficient irrigation practices and overdue maintenance is inadequate. For example, it would be possible to increase the area planted to citrus in the Sundays River Valley in the Eastern Cape by around 30% if a more appropriate water management policy could be implemented. It could also have a sizable impact on wage earning opportunities.

There are many countries that depend heavily on irrigation for sustainable agricultural production, and looking at their agricultural success stories, it is clear that the respective governments play a key role in providing irrigation infrastructure.

The impact of reforms

In the last section of the report, the future impact of these proposed interventions is set out through modelling. In terms of agriculture, improved marketing and the use of public-private partnerships to boost market access will gradually increase the demand for South African agricultural export products.

The assumptions regarding agriculture are based on the modelling completed by the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP). This modelling exercise, conducted in partnership with major agricultural industry associations, assesses the potential impact of specific trade policies and water interventions on agricultural growth.

These, as well as other improvements in the competitiveness of agriculture, are gradually realised during the simulation period. This improves the demand for exports and productivity, which will mean an increase of R6 billion in agricultural exports by the end of the ten-year simulation period.

A final thought

South Africa is burning the candle at both ends when it comes to water. On the one hand, climate change and the growing intensity of droughts are depleting our water supplies. On the other, inadequate social and economic conditions are deteriorating our water infrastructure to such an extent, that it merely serves to exacerbate the water shortage that South Africans are already experiencing.

Water is our most valuable resource, and we must all contribute to ensuring its sustainable use in our country. – Niel de Kock, Department of Agricultural Economics, University of the Free State

For more information or references, send an email to Niel de Kock at

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