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The Backdrop

South Africa is a water-scarce country with uneven distribution of rainfall. Our mean annual rainfall is 490mm. This is only half the global average. Further, high evaporation rates result in less than 9% of the rainfall ending up in our rivers. South Africa made considerable investments into engineered infrastructure (including dams and inter-basin transfer schemes) in the 1930s, 70s and 80s. This network supplies water to drier parts of the country and our urban centres. The cost to maintain and upgrade this critical infrastructure is estimated at R680 billion over the next decade. But water does not come from pipes and dams. Most of our water comes from precious areas (in the highest parts of our catchments) that receive the highest rainfall. These are South Africa’s water source areas – the “crown jewels” – and the headwaters from which our water originates. South Africa’s water source areas produce disproportionately greater volumes of water in relation to their size. Only 8% of our land provides us with 50% of our surface run-off (water in wetlands, streams and rivers). Thus, our water supply is dependent on the health of the natural systems (ecological infrastructure) that underpins our built infrastructure.

Our water source areas

South Africa has 22 water source areas, situated in five provinces. Our water source areas are the source of most of our major river systems. Together, our water source areas form the heart of our water supply, with our major rivers being the blood vessels which sustain our country. Approximately 63% of our water source areas are in natural condition. Cultivation is the most prominent land-use in water sources areas (15%), followed by plantations (13%). Although prospecting and mining rights coincide with less than 1% of our water source areas, there is a considerable overlap (70%) of mining activities in Mpumalanga water source areas. Water source areas are working landscapes, where human activities are part of, and sometimes integral to, their functioning. Nevertheless, our water source areas are confronted with a multiplicity of threats including cultivation, urban development, alien invasive vegetation, overgrazing, climate change, fires and mining. Arguably, land use degradation stemming from cultivation, plantations and over-grazing as well as mining pose the greatest threats to our water source areas. Our water source areas supply water to South Africa’s largest urban centres and support downstream economies and ecosystems. Our national economy depends on these areas.

Benefit flows from our water source areas

On a national scale, our water source areas support approximately:

  • 60% of South Africa’s population.
  • 67% of our national economic activity.
  • Supplies approximately 70% of irrigation water.

Of our major urban centres:

  • The City of Cape Town receives 98.8% of its water from the Boland Mountains and Table Mountain water source areas.
  • About 65.0% of the water supplied to the city region of Gauteng (Johannesburg and Pretoria) is derived from the Maloti Drakensberg, Northern Drakensberg, Upper Vaal, Enkangala and Upper Usutu water source areas.
  • eThekwini and Pietermaritzburg receive 97.8% of their water from the Southern Drakensberg water source area.
  • Bloemfontein derives 70% of its water from the Maloti Drakensberg water source area.

State of protection

The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 2000 provides various categories of protected areas including national parks, special nature reserves, nature reserves, and protected environments. It also recognises the protection declared for World Heritage Sites, Mountain Catchment Areas and Forest Protected Areas in terms of other legislation. However, currently only 13% of our water source areas are under some level of formal protection in terms of the Protected Areas Act. Although there is a national plan to expand protected area coverage by a further 10.8 million hectares by 2029, this will only contribute marginally to increased protection of our water source areas. Due to low levels and uneven distribution of protection, our water source areas are highly vulnerable to inappropriate development.

Did you know?

  • 37% of water is lost once it enters our water distribution systems.
  • 98% of our available reliable water has already been allocated.
  • 18% of South Africans rely on communal taps, whilst another 9% rely directly on springs, rivers and wetlands.
  • 60% of our river ecosystems are threatened and 23% are critically endangered.
  • 65% of our wetlands are threatened and 48% are critically endangered.
  • There will be a 17% deficit between water supply and demand by 2030.