Massive electricity cost hikes and the recent drought have alerted authorities and farmers that more needs to be done to improve sugarcane irrigation and agriculture practices alongside the Pongola River, says CEO of the Impala Water Users Association (IWUA) Johann Boonzaaier.

He said the drought was a wake-up call to better understand the impact of human activity or lack of timeous action on both the Bivane and Jozini dams in northern KwaZulu-Natal as well as the rainfall dependent western region of the Pongola catchment.

Water tests taken over more than a decade had shown the salinity levels in both dams was on the increase which Boonzaaier attributed directly and “unfortunately” to inefficient farming and irrigation practices both by stock and sugarcane farmers.

“That is a serious pointer and a wake up call that the quality of the water is deteriorating. But the infrastructure the sugarcane farmers need to change is very costly; for example outdated irrigation systems, new technologies and the most difficult of all, they need to change their habits. Proper irrigation is not only difficult but it takes a lot out of a farmer. I think that’s why the change over to better and newer technology and irrigation methods has not happened. It creates a lot of stress and requires huge capital,” he said.

Another serious aspect of concern, according to Boonzaaier was soil erosion caused by overgrazing in communities along the river upstream that contributed to a massive build up of silt in the Bivane and the high cost of pump maintenance.

“I have talked to the engineers about echo sounding to determine the silt load in the dam, but it is very expensive. Also we haven’t managed issues such as these as we were in crisis control since the beginning of the drought,” he said.

While municipalities such as those in Pongola and Paul Pietersburg were working hard to keep their wastewater treatment plants efficient, crumbling infrastructure networks resulting in raw effluent flowing into water courses had seen an increase in the Escherichia coli or E.coli bacteria count in recent years according to Boonzaaier.

In a frank discussion with the Shukela magazine on the water crisis during one of the worst droughts in living memory, Boonzaaier said while most sugarcane farmers in the Pongola district had realised their irrigation methodologies required an overhaul, more had to be done by every community that depended on the river to clean up their act in a bid to secure the future of the water supply.

Due to efficient weather and rainfall prediction by the IWUA over the years, the extreme drought conditions were flagged at the start of 2015. Heavy irrigation restrictions resulted for sugarcane farmers in both 2015 and 2016.

By November 2015 the Bivane Dam had fallen to just 10% of its 150 million cubic metre capacity.

But, Boonzaaier said it was important to note that it was not the drought alone that had forced the farmers to re-think their water resource management, but the massive escalation in electricity tariffs by Eskom since 2008.

“Electricity costs have been the biggest contributor to better water management by sugarcane farmers here because whenever they switch on their water pumps to irrigate it is costing a lot of money. They also know if they don’t pay their electricity bills Eskom will summarily shut them down.”

Apart from the impact of the recent water shortages, he said, the farmers were generally under financial pressure and were more pressed to increase profit margins through improved infrastructure and better managerial practices on existing land in an attempt to increase returns, or more simply put, to increase “vertical” performance.

But the drought, as painful as it was, Boonzaaier said, had a silver lining broadly speaking.

“South Africa has the most sophisticated water protection legislation in the world. There are three pillars to water resource management entrenched in the National Water Act (NWA) and the National Water Resources Strategy. These include an enabling institutional environment, enabling legislation and efficient management instruments. Research and evidence show however it is in efficient management that South Africa is seriously falling short,” he said.

As a result efficient and sustainable management of crucial services such as water supply were becoming more and more the responsibility of local authorities and the communities themselves, which, according to Boonzaaier, was a good thing.

As a direct result of the drought, he added, the farmers, together with a range of communities, the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Agriculture and the Zululand District Municipality were now collaborating and discussing both the problems and the solutions.

“Everyone in this area is now attentive to the threat, the challenges and the impacts. There is this general realisation that there needs to be change. I find that very exciting because things are really scary, particularly if you look at the rate of land and service degradation in South Africa which is then aggravated by the population growth. Also in our catchment there is an unprecedented increase in coal mining interest in the Pongola River headwaters. All this has resulted in increased pressure on our water resource supply and quality.”

Boonzaaier warned that the drought might not be over. “International climatologists have said that the El Nino effect could go deep into this year. And we are experiencing signs of that in terms of persisting low rainfall and warmer climatic conditions.

“Yes, we have had rain, but not enough. We will know in October how it might go next year.

“So as you can see, the drought basically reminds everyone that we are exposed to forces so much bigger than ourselves.  And for our sugarcane farmers here in Pongola it is going to be the guys who can manage their water resources most effectively who will survive into the future,” he said.


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