By Mike Muller
There’s a growing concern in South Africa about what’s being portrayed as “a national drought disaster”. There have been anxious suggestions that drought could see many cities and towns facing their “Day Zero”. This happened during the water crisis in Cape Town as fears mounted that the taps would run dry.
Concerns were reinforced when it was announced that the tunnels that bring water from the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme to the country’s economic hub, Gauteng, would be shut for a few months.
From a technical perspective, the threat has been exaggerated. In summer rainfall areas, there has been a slow start to the rainy season. And while dam levels are lower than they were last year, they’re not yet at critical levels. An analysis of the critical Integrated Vaal River System found that there was no need for water restrictions this summer. The system supplies Gauteng and the surrounds, including large users such as Sasol, an integrated energy and chemical company, and many of the power stations that belong to the country’s electricity public utility, Eskom.
The panicked reaction suggests though that many people don’t fully understand South Africa’s climate, or how it affects the way the country’s water supply systems work. In particular, there’s limited recognition of the different types of drought and how they affect different sectors of society.
For example, dry periods can devastate agriculture without necessarily affecting water supplies to cities and industries. Plants in fields and livestock grazing on natural pasture depend on moisture in the top layers of the soil. Cities and towns either have large reserves of water in dams or tap it from aquifers, which are effectively underground reservoirs.
It would be wrong to suggest that there are no drought problems in the country at present. Parts of the Northern, Western and Eastern Cape are officially in drought conditions. This means that officials acknowledge that the prolonged dry conditions are now seriously threatening farming activities. And many farmers are battling to stay in business.
But across South Africa’s 1.2 million sq kilometres, there are also areas where rainfall has been well below average for a year or more.