National water governance: A bigger deal than drought?

A decade ago, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) in South Africa was facing difficulties in offering basic services. Unmaintained ageing infrastructure was causing problems, with pipes either bursting or leaking severely. The country was already experiencing a water supply deficit from over-allocation of catchment water supply, water theft and leakage. Both the quantity and quality of available water supplies were declining. Compounding this was an exodus of capacity and skills from the DWS which further affected the security of supply. Only 39% of the 250 engineer positions, and six out of 45 lower management roles, were filled. This erosion of capacity was exacerbated by the attractive employment prospects in the private sector and a large number of highly skilled personnel approaching retirement. These gaps were leading to poor monitoring and governance of water resources, exposing the water systems to illegal activities which made the situation worse.

Fast forward to April 2018, and the situation within the DWS has become dire because the downward spiral has continued. Most skilled personnel have retired without their positions being filled; the DWS is in a financial crisis (R4.3 billion in the red); the backlog of people waiting for water licenses has grown; the performance of basic functions and delivery of services has slowed drastically; and in certain cases over-allocation of catchment water resources has worsened due to increasing domestic water requirements. This situation has been made worse by low water supplies as a result of the recent nationwide drought – although much of the country is recovering from it, it is ongoing in the Western Cape.

Fruitful against the odds
Evidence suggests that South African fruit production has shown resilience – not only to the DWS crisis, but also to the compounding effect of the recent droughts. Understandably, the impacts of organizational and managerial failures at the DWS were highly negative on the fruit farming sector since it relies on water allocations for irrigation. The absence of an effective DWS has been absorbed mainly through levying additional charges for services that should otherwise be provided by the DWS as part of the water levies – effectively a double tax. These charges and services are organized at a water users association level for most fruit producing catchments. These additional costs have included infrastructure maintenance and upgrade, water quality and water supply monitoring, and purchasing expert advice from consultants such as lawyers and engineers to address the failures of the DWS. Favorable currency exchange rates for fruit exports have mitigated much of the negative economic impact, especially during the 2015-2017 drought period when the volume and quality of fruit took a hit. Ironically, the international community’s negative outlook on the South African economy during the period in question was the main reason for the favorable exchange rates.

The maxim ‘when the cat is away, the mice will play’ is relevant here. While fruit growers and water user associations have stepped into the breach to address the governance failures, the lack of effective monitoring by the DWS has created opportunities for some unscrupulous water users. Anecdotal examples of illegal transfer of water between catchments, water theft from dams and rivers, unregistered borehole water abstraction, and underhanded tactics such as tampering with water meters and water delivery systems are common. These anecdotes suggest that illegal activity might have increased during the drought years, when water was scarce. To an extent, the failure of DWS governance may have unlawfully benefitted certain water users, from which fruit producers are not exempt.

The scope for improvement; what if the DWS changed?
On 26 February 2018, a new DWS minister was appointed, with the previous minister facing a parliamentary probe for the crisis. It is too early to predict whether DWS governance will improve as a result. The question arises: what is the foreseeable impact on the resilience of irrigated agriculture to water risks if DWS governance were to improve? The National Water Act and the subsequent National Water Resource Strategies promote just, equitable, and fair sharing of water resources. From an equity standpoint, growers have benefited from generous allocations that were formulated in the 1960s when technology and production systems were much less efficient than they are today. Additionally, water requirements for most fruit crops are not known accurately, and growers are prone to erring on the side of caution and over-irrigating. Furthermore, boreholes do not form part of the official water allocation and are not closely monitored; thus under improved DWS governance, borehole use could (as it should) be taken into account when calculating farm water allocations. Far-reaching water allocation reform could mean reduced water for fruit irrigation. This could induce further innovations in the sector resulting in a ‘step-up’ in water efficiency. Improved DWS governance would certainly limit opportunities for illegal activities, resulting in more water available for equitable sharing within a catchment. This, indeed, is the intent of the National Water Act. Finally, prevailing poor water quality issues would be reduced through better monitoring and compliance actions, benefitting all water users, in particular the environment and tourism-related industries.

Overall, fruit production in South Africa has shown remarkable resilience to the ongoing DWS governance failure, mainly through reorganized governance at localised levels. National water governance has far reaching consequences, not only on local production, but also on international relations and the resilience of fresh fruit food systems – South Africa is the second largest supplier of fresh fruits to the UK, for example, and accounts for 9% of fruit imports. The economic impact of losing that market share would be substantial. Our understanding is that improvements in DWS governance would not only improve national water security and resilience of fruit production to periodic droughts, and water quality risks, but also sustain access to critical export markets. This reminds us that the most important water threat may not be physical threats such as scarcity, quality or other weather related phenomenon, but how we govern water resources for sustainable and productive use – not just for South Africa, but the world at large.


The project Increasing resilience to water-related risks in the UK fresh fruit and vegetable system, is funded through the Global Food Security’s ‘Resilience of the UK Food System Programme’, with support from BBSRC, ESRC, NERC and the Scottish Government. The UK Food System Resilience Project looks to interrogate, quantitatively and qualitatively, water efficiency and related practices before, during, after and over successive droughts at a farm, catchment and national level; and understand how this relates to resilience of fresh fruit and water supply in South Africa.

Co-funding is provided through the Improving water security strand of the International Water Security Network. This project brings together the University of the West of England, Institute of Natural Resources, Monash South Africa and the University of Arizona to investigate issues around water security, under the cross cutting themes of ‘risks and vulnerabilities’ and ‘innovation and adaptive capacity’.