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Upper Vaal

In Numbers

Located in Mpumalanga, the Upper Vaal is a critical water source for downstream users and supplies water to the Gauteng city-region. A few towns, such as Ermelo, are found in the Upper Vaal catchment.

Size: 81 856 ha

Main Rivers

The Vaal River flows from this water source area. The Vaal flows eastwards through to its confluence with the Orange River, forming the boundary between the Free State and Gauteng.

Did You Know?

  • The Upper Vaal is critical for supplying water to South Africa’s economic hub, the Gauteng city-region.
  • The Upper Vaal, together with the Northern Drakensberg, Maloti Drakensberg and Upper Usutu, supports more than 13 million people.
  • The Vaal River is a conduit for transferring water from the Tugela in KwaZulu-Natal and the Orange/Senqu Rivers to Gauteng.
  • The Vaal River further sustains many towns, including Sasolburg, on its way to its confluence with the Orange River.
  • It supplies water to Eskom used for cooling two of its coal-fired power stations.


Land Use (in %)

  • Mining 0.05%
  • Wetlands 3.95%
  • Urban 2.32%
  • Cultivation (irrigated) 0.02%
  • Waterbodies 0.22%
  • Plantation/Woodlot 0.14%
  • Cultivation (dryland) 33.73%
  • Natural 59.57%

Protected Areas

There are currently no formally protected areas in Upper Vaal. The Upper Vaal currently has no (0%) formal protection.

Threat Status

Approximately 60% of the Upper Vaal water source area is in natural condition. However, up to 40% of the Upper Vaal is under cultivation for dryland crops such as maize. A range of critical biodiversity areas fall within the water source area and it is vital for sustaining downstream freshwater ecosystems.


Coal fields in Ermelo, Evander, the Highveld and Witbank overlap almost entirely with the Upper Vaal water source area. Nevertheless, it currently has no legal protection. Further, it is a critical agricultural area, with up to 40% under cultivation. Which legal mechanisms may be used to protect this water source area and associated agricultural resources from the impacts of coal mining?

Interactive Map

South Africa has 22 water source areas spread across five provinces (KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Western Cape, Eastern Cape and Limpopo). The total size of our water source areas is 12.32 million hectares. A number of these areas extend and are shared with Lesotho and Swaziland; approximately 1.91 million hectares in Lesotho and 0.93 million hectares in Swaziland.

The total volume of water supplied by these areas per year is approximately 2 457 million cubic metres. The greatest volume of recharge is generated by the Southern Drakensberg, followed by the Eastern Cape Drakensberg and the Boland Mountains.