Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THERE is not enough fresh water in South Africa to go around, and experts say water availability is the most important factor limiting agricultural production — yet farmers are often their own worst enemies when it comes to water management.

It is projected that South Africa could run out of water by 2025 — and in Gauteng, Africa and South Africa’s economic hub, by as early as 2015. More than 95% of the country's available fresh water was already allocated by 2005.

"We’ve had a huge scare with electricity prices, but I think water is also unreasonably priced (too low)," says Jeanne Nel, a biodiversity and ecosystems services scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

While farmers are not solely to blame, agriculture is allocated the largest portion of South Africa’s available fresh water, with about 63% going to irrigation. This is sobering when it is considered that only 12% of South Africa’s landmass is considered arable and only 3% "truly fertile". Only 1.5% of the land is under irrigation, producing 30% of the country’s crops.

"In the face of the far more obvious negative impacts that mining and industrial use and pollution have (on the environment), farmers often get away with a lot," says Dr Nel. "Farming’s effects are a lot more insidious. If you keep drawing up water all the time, that does not create a big change all at once, but it can create a huge problem. We do need to put it into context — there are good and bad mining practices just as there are good and bad farming practices."

Climate change and food security

It is not only irrigation that needs water. Large swathes of South Africa are given over to grazing and livestock farming — 69% of its total surface area, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature SA (WWF-SA).

On top of that, there is growing concern over what climate change will do to a country that already has half the average global annual rainfall and 98% of its water systems in crisis mode. Also, its population is growing and getting wealthier, adding to food security concerns because demand for animal and fish proteins and fresh fruit and vegetables is rising.

Food availability concerns have changed farming. During the 20-30 years during which South Africans’ eating habits have changed, farming profitability has, paradoxically, declined.

That decline and water scarcity have stripped South Africa of more than a third of the farmers it had in the early 1990s, says the WWF-SA in a document titled Agriculture: Facts and Trends SA that it released last year. Meanwhile, production remains constant, indicating a rising trend in intensified production.

In short, farmers have generally turned to increased irrigation and use more fuel, fertiliser and genetically modified crops to grow the food South Africans want to eat.

Unlawful water use

Department of Water Affairs compliance monitoring and enforcement director Nigel Adams says that a few years ago, the department noticed an increase in unlawful water use, perhaps because it improved its verification and validation of farmers’ water permits and licences.

Under the new National Water Act, the state is the custodian of South Africa’s water resources, and anyone who wants to divert a water body, dam or otherwise adapt it needs permission to do so, he says.

"Some are partially unlawful (in their water use), some are blatantly unlawful ... For those whose use is partially unlawful, we deal with them through the validation and verification process," Mr Adams says. "We need to prove they were not using that water before 1998 (because of the legislation). If they agree, fine; if they don’t, we issue a directive (to cease the illegal water use)."

According to Department of Water Affairs statistics, in 2010 the mining sector was issued with 32 "pre-directives" and 16 directives to cease illegal actions regarding water, and faced three criminal charges. The agricultural sector was issued 127 pre-directives, 48 directives and 13 criminal charges.

None of this is good for the environment, although there is growing realisation of this, and the tide is turning. Food companies, from multinationals such as Coca-Cola to South African food retailers such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay, have been working with farmers to improve farming practices and reduce their impact on the environment, including water use.

Awareness

Woolworths sustainability chief Justin Smith says when the retailer began working with farmers five or six years ago, there were many who were not sure of their legal obligations. He says increased awareness of the effects farming can have on the environment has "definitely" caused a reduction in water consumption, among other benefits, despite "capacity challenges" in the Department of Water Affairs.

An audit of Woolworths’ Farming for the Future programme shows the retailer’s top 15 suppliers reduced their water consumption 16% between 2011 and 2012, Mr Smith says.

"The point of Farming for the Future is that it is holistic — it looks at the link between biodiversity management, soil health and water management ... Healthy soil retains more water ... so there is less runoff into water systems, less pesticide and less fertiliser use, if any," he adds.

Intensive farming uses pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. These can pollute river systems, causing algal blooms because of the surfeit of nutrients in the water (algal blooms "kill" the water by cutting off sunlight). Also, silt runoff into rivers and dams can greatly diminish capacity, says Dr Nel. Many dams in South Africa have lost up to 90% of their capacity this way.

The lack of proper measurement and monitoring of farmers’ water use is one mentioned by WWF-SA agricultural programme senior manager Inge Kotze, and AgriSA natural resources director Nic Opperman.

"(South Africa) needs to manage and measure water use, and we need to make it compulsory ... We have been waiting for those regulations (that will make water use measurement compulsory) for years," says Mr Opperman.

Last year, Water and Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa reduced the number of catchment management agencies across South Africa from 19 to nine, but the Department of Water Affairs has not yet properly established seven of these, which is a concern, he says.

Dr Nel says South Africa’s water scarcity problems are exacerbated by the proliferation of small farm dams that do not require government permission prior to construction. These have a high surface area to volume ratio that promotes evaporation.