Water: Time is running out

by CapeNature

Dr Ernst Baard, CapeNature’s Executive Director of Biodiversity Support, tackles the water question from a long-term perspective, in this article originally published in Agri-Culture’s December 2016-January 2017 issue. 

With 2015 recorded as the hottest year worldwide since 1882, as well as the driest year for South Africa since 1921, and with indications that 2016, and the years to come, may not be much wetter or cooler, alarm bells are ringing for people needing to sustain a decent way of living in the Western Cape and elsewhere.

Kogelberg Nature Reserve - Western Cape - South Africa

Latest summaries of the potential impact of climate change in southern Africa indicate that it is now beyond reasonable doubt that people are responsible for climate change and that people should take responsibility and do something about it. The outlook on the potential impact of climate change on the World’s plants, animals, oceans and their associated ecosystems, is dire to say the least and already we are seeing certain negative impacts on the frogs, birds, coral reefs, food security and commercially important fish stocks of not only the World, but locally as well – even wine farmers have started moving their vineyards to higher altitudes to maintain quality and native bird species have shifted their natural distribution ranges to cope with a changing climate. These summaries are alarming, yet, they maintain a strong element of motivation that we should and can do something about it.

One of the loud alarm bells for South Africa and indeed the Western Cape, is the indication that we may not have enough freshwater to drink in 20-30 years.

Can you imagine a city like Cape Town and its people, with both the Voëlvlei and Theewaterskloof dams dry, with the City of Cape Town and the Department of Water & Sanitation not being able to guarantee water for the next few months. It is not like in rural areas where we can get one or two water tankers to park at the municipality building and 500 people can come and fill containers to take home. No, when the water supply runs dry, we will be in trouble, and perhaps we not only will be in trouble, but may start making trouble for each other if we can’t find water to drink. Doesn’t the saying goes: future wars will be fought over water rather than politics?


The prospect of the taps running dry is a worrying one

With less than 1% of the World’s liquid freshwater in lakes, rivers and underground, no wonder we are staring water shortages in the eye. Almost 100% of South Africa’s water is already allocated to the environment, agriculture, industry, mining and many others…

Did you know that it takes 45 litres of water to put one portion of vegetables on your plate, 115 litres to produce a can of your favourite fizzy drink, 250 litres to produce a glass of milk, 1000 litres to produce your morning paper and, a favourite with many, 1900 litres of water to produce that nice juicy steak for the Sunday braai? If we add up how much of this “hidden water” is used per person per day, otherwise known as our “water footprint”, we would be astounded that the world average stands at approximately 3400 litres per person per day; and then you haven’t even taken a bath or a shower or flushed the toilet yet!

The Western Cape is critical to biodiversity conservation, and more specifically, water conservation in South Africa: it is not only one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, due to the fact that it is home to more than 70% of one of the World’s six Floristic Kingdoms, but it is one of the primary water catchment areas of the country. These mountain catchments, primarily of the Cape Fold Mountains, operate like the water factories of our province; call them “water hearts”, that produce and “pump” clean, potable water into streams and rivers; literally the arteries that feed the landscape and eventually, us, the people that make a life here.

The Western Cape holds 57% of the strategic water resources in the country and a total of 92% of the terrestrial land managed by CapeNature comprises mountain catchments, with an estimated area of 746 000 ha. These are typically the mountain catchments contained in a number of CapeNature nature reserves across the Western Cape, such as the Cederberg, the Boland, the Langeberg, Outeniqua, and Swartberg Mountains.

HH slider by JL 6

The Hottentots Holland mountains are a key catchment area for the province

Healthy and functioning mountain catchments and rivers, streams, wetlands and seeps, in water catchment areas, act like “water-holding” and “water-producing” devices, providing clean, safe water to rivers, dams and ultimately to the end consumer.

There is, however, a major threat to our mountain catchments and that is the threat of alien and invasive species. The current estimate is that invasive alien plants cover approximately >10 million ha in South Africa, and use approximately >3.3 billion cubic metres of water in excess of that used by native vegetation every year (that is almost 7% of the runoff of the country!). These estimates indicate that the reduction in water yield are already significant and definitely large enough to warrant intervention. The logical conclusion is that these water losses will increase as alien plants invade the remaining, uninvaded areas.

Despite the fact that our mountain fynbos catchments must burn periodically to maintain their diversity and ecological health, the second threat to healthy mountain catchments is too frequent fires and fires that occur out of season.  Because fynbos in the Western Cape region is a fire-driven ecosystem, fire remains a very important and necessary process; fynbos requires fire to survive and to rejuvenate itself and without fire, fynbos dies! Therefore, any given fynbos fire is not necessarily bad news; it can be very good news!

However, every year unwanted and uncontrolled veld and forest fires devastate our landscapes, affecting natural ecosystem functions, endangering life and ruining property. With the Western Cape being one of the worst affected areas in South Africa, it is necessary to pay special attention to fire management within the mountain catchments of the region.


Fire management is key

CapeNature has been mapping fires in the fynbos for many years and calculated that over the past 14 years the region experienced around 1 139 veldfires, on an estimated 1.2 million ha of fynbos. Even though fynbos requires fire, the optimum frequency of fire needed is in intervals of 10 – 15 years. Add to that the increased fuel load from invasive alien plants, and the result is that fires in the region are burning too hot and too frequently and is impacting on the production processes of fynbos, hampering the ecology of catchments and the associated ecological infrastructure for optimum water production. During the last number of years, there has been an observed gradual shift in the typical onset of the typical winter rains in the southwest, and on average, there may be an almost two-month delay in the onset of winter rains, followed by concomitant “late” rains and even snow towards late spring/early summer. This may have had an impact on the occurrence of fire in the dry season in the Western Cape and research has shown that the frequency and extent of fires across the region has increased significantly; and this could be linked to a warming and drying climate, with resulting droughts.

Following the substantially dry summer of 2015-16 with very little rain, reports from our CapeNature regional staff indicated that rivers, mountain streams, boreholes, springs and dams on nature reserves and neighbouring farms had dried up. Our conservation managers have noticed that it has been hotter for longer periods, and the rain has been less even though there were more rainfall events. During the last summer, some rivers feeding human settlements have run dry for the first time.  Virtually all of our neighbours reported lower river and dam levels and severe water stress. It follows that the inability of farmers to irrigate crops properly due to severe water shortage may have a significant negative impact on crop yields, which in turn may have a negative impact on job and food security, and employment.

The seasonal Rocherpan along the West Coast, for example, last summer dried up completely by the first week of December 2015; historically this should only have happened towards the end February / beginning March. The same happened again in December 2016. The levels of our major dams like Voëlvlei and Theewaterskloof are significantly lower than last year this time.


Rocherpan should look like this until March every year

There is a lot we can do but we should do it soon.

In the short term, water saving and water conservation campaigns need to continue as part of our engagement with visitors, neighbours, communities and partners. The message needs to be communicated as part of a focused media campaign and verbal engagements with stakeholders. The public and our communities should continuously be informed about the role and importance of water in sustaining life and the economy of the region. Water management plans for local government, private land owners and citizens should be rolled out with the key focus on saving water.

In the medium to long term, we should

  1. continue implementing the CapeNature Integrated Catchment Management Strategy which would ensure clean, healthy mountain catchments that yield enough water;
  2. implement the Western Cape Protected Area Expansion Strategy that takes into consideration and allows for climate change adaptation measures such as and including priority climate change corridors, and which will ensure and promote sustainable, long-term integrated land-use planning for landscape resilience;
  3. enhance the understanding of and increasing the value offering of ecosystem-based adaptation responses, and increase monitoring and research into the impacts of climate change and extreme events, and adaptation and disaster risk management options for species, ecosystems and even communities vulnerable to climate change; and
  4. support long-term research into and the monitoring of climate change resilience, adaptation and innovation, and to develop tools to evaluate the effect of drought and climate change, better predict effects of climate change, improve water use efficiency and water demand management, allow for optimal groundwater use, investigate alternative water sources and improve integrated catchment management.

Finally, it is strongly suggested that future water use per capita and water demand have to reduce. While demand-side management options such as water-saving devices and water restrictions will work and should be incorporated into norms and standards for future development, longer term solutions such as the continued clearing of alien invasive plants from catchments and investment in the restoration and maintenance of ecological infrastructure is essential. Building more dams is definitely not the answer!

While water security is an obvious benefit from this, the same is true from the management of our catchments, wetlands and rivers, fires and ecosystems; all of these are among important opportunities for job creation and sustainable livelihoods of the people of the region through the implementation of several poverty relief programmes by the national government such as the “Working for…” programmes.

It is therefore in the interest of healthy catchments and the sustained livelihoods of the people of the Western Cape that immediate and decisive action is needed to protect the sustainability of water yield from Western Cape mountain catchments.

Dr Ernst Baard has been a scientist at CapeNature for 34 years, and is the Executive Director of Biodiversity Support at the organisation.

One Comment

  • Wolfgang Preiser

    February 16, 2017 12:29 pm

    An excellent article, very worrying, and lots of food for thought! It seems clear that a bad ending is much closer than many people would like to believe, and that the time for taking serious action (even if it means letting go of dear habits and comforts) is now!


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