“Apart from being essential to all life forms, water is one of several primary inputs in all sectors of an economy and is, therefore, a crucial resource with huge political significance and long political-economic history”. Willem de Lange (CSIR)

South Africa is a dry country by world standards. Its climate varies from desert and semi-desert in the west to sub-humid along the eastern coastal area. Its average rainfall of about 450 mm per year is well below the world average of about 860 mm. Evaporation is high, which places extra pressure on this resource.

No truly large perennial river – such as the Congo, Ganges, Mekong, Nile or Rhine which can serve as a reliable source of water – occurs in South Africa . The highly variable rainfall together with the general steep topography and shallow soils, contribute to the flashy character of our rivers. Groundwater is also limited due to the geology of the country, much of which is hard rock with little water bearing capacity. To further aggravate the situation, the spatial distribution of the water resources is highly skewed with 60% of the total annual runoff arising in only 20% of the surface area of the country (eastern parts). The western parts are much more arid than the eastern part of the country.

That South Africans consume more water per capita than the global norm (approximately 237 litres vs 173 litres per day) is hardly encouraging!

Sources: www.sancold.org.za/index.php/about/about-dams/dams-in-south-africa and www.sanews.gov.za/south-africa/spotlight-water.

Find updates on the country’s dams at www.dws.gov.za.

Agriculture is an important sector contributing to the country’s food security, rural welfare and contributing to job creation. Its irrigation component consumes over 60% of the country’s water resources to do this, placing a considerable responsibility on the shoulders of all in the sector. Agriculture faces increased competition for water resources from domestic and industrial users. The following table presents the water resource allocations per water user group:

Water user/sector Proportion of allocation
Agriculture: irrigation 60%
Agriculture and nature conservation 2.5%
Municipal: urban 24%
Municipal: rural 3%
Industrial 3%
Afforestation 3%
Mining 2.5%
Power generation 2%
Source: "The State of SA’s water resources" presentation by Trevor Balzer (Department Water & Sanitation 2014)
Upstream and downstream: Green Trust/WWF SA media field trip surveying the work done in removing invasive alien plants. .

In global terms, South Africa is classified as water scarce country. It is the 30th driest country in the world. Possible interventions include:

  • Better use of irrigation technology
  • Recycling water to a potable standard.
  • Desalination of seawater or brackish water.
  • Alien vegetation control: a significant volume of water is used by alien vegetation and control measures aimed at reclaiming the water is an option.
  • Inter-basin and trans-country transfers: The importation of water from central Africa remains an option.
  • Minimise leakages. Leakages is not only wasted water, it is foregone income as well.
  • Virtual water (see next heading)
Source: Dr Willem de Lange, CSIR

Water is a national issue for several reasons:

  • The necessity for water makes it a human security issue. Water is a key to stability in the lives of communities and to the growth of nations.
  • Because South Africa is a water-scarce country, the water we have should be used wisely.
  • Water is closely related to food security and nutrition.
  • Water use behaviours can have a detrimental effect on the quality of our water. Poor maintenance of waste water treatment works, and industrial, mining and agricultural pollutants degrade our water and aquatic life.
  • The costs to the economy of making increasingly toxic water fit for human consumption is an unnecessary, avoidable expense.
  • The trading status of South African agricultural products, both for export and local, is threatened by the quality of water in some areas. The shadow goes further than the safety of the food to the very profitability of various businesses (read “jobs”).

African business environment

Under most scenarios, water is set to become an increasingly scarce resource in Africa. This is particularly true for southern Africa. The continent loses more water to evaporation than any other continent. Droughts and floods from erratic rainfall patterns, population growth, pollution and urbanisation will all translate to water demand outstripping supply by an estimated 40% by 2030.

Which countries have water in southern Africa?

Country Cubic metres per person
Angola 10 510
Botswana 6 820
Lesotho 1 680
Malawi 1 400
Mozambique 11 320
Namibia 8 810
South Africa 1 110
Swaziland 4 160
Zambia 9 630
Zimbabwe 1 550
Source: Mike Muller

Virtual water trade


The water issue for producing food will be resolved through trade and not water management. Food will be produced were it can be produced with the most effective use of water and then traded with less water rich countries… Countries will therefore import products that they cannot produce water-efficiently and vice versa. Mike Muller.


A solution for the southern tip of the continent would be to grow the agricultural sectors of countries such as Zambia, where there is more than enough rainfall.


Doing so would lessen the strain on South Africa where 60% of the water is used for irrigation, and would also stimulate neighbouring countries. South Africa would be able to import the food Zambia grows and also get growing markets for its own goods.


As climate change progresses, along with the expected drop in rainfall, this would help mitigate many of the problems that the country faces with ensuring food security.


Source: adapted from the article “Farming out South Africa’s water worries” on www.mg.co.za.

Water for Africa

In Africa, groundwater is the major source of drinking water and its use for irrigation is forecast to increase substantially to combat growing food insecurity. The first quantitative continent-wide maps of aquifer storage and potential borehole yields in Africa based on an extensive review of available maps, publications and data were done in 2012.


Some articles:



  • African Development Bank Group www.afdb.org/en
  • African Rivers Network (ARN)https://sites.google.com/site/africanriversnetwork/
  • African Water Associationwww.afwa-hq.org
  • Eastern Africa Water Association (EAWA)www.eawaonline.org/
  • IFAT Africa trade fair www.ifat-africa.com
  • Lesotho Highlands Water Project helps to ensure an adequate supply of water to Gauteng in South Africa while also generating hydropower for Lesotho. Visit www.lhda.org.ls.
  • The Limpopo Watercourse Commission (LIMCOM), launched in 2014, enables four Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries to manage their water resources.
  • www.africanwater.org – an independent initiative dedicated to the promotion of sustainable water resources management and use
  • SADC Groundwater Management Institute http://sadc-gmi.org
  • The Water Project (“When water comes … everything changes”) – http://thewaterproject.org
  • Water for Africa Institute, www.water-for-africa.org/en/home.html
  • South Africa and Zimbabwe entered into an agreement of Co-operation on Water Resources Management in December 2014 and established the Joint Water Commission (JWC), which is referred to as the Zimbabwe – South Africa JWC (ZRSA JWC). In terms of the agreement, water will be supplied to South Africa from her neighbour.


International business environment

Two-thirds of the world’s population will be affected by water shortages by 2030 (Reinders, 2016).

The 6th of the global goals agreed to by governments in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is “Clean water & sanitation” and the 14th is “Life below water”. See www.globalgoals.org.

Local business environment

Municipalities and the delivery of water services

Local government is constitutionally mandated to provide basic services including the delivery of water and sanitation services. These municipalities, however, are experiencing systemic issues that negatively affect this delivery.

Municpal consumer debt and poor financial management

While more households have access to piped water than in 2002, there has been a steady decline in the number of households that pay for this piped water. Midway through 2018, non-payment amounted to R143.2 billion. This significantly influences the ability of local government to do its job. This is exacerbated by irregular municipal expenditure. In turn, municipalities owe R13.1 billion to water boards and the Department of Water & Sanitation.

Poor financial audits against municipalities highlight serious governance and accountability issues in local government. Little meaningful action is taken against officials for non-compliance with supply chain management procedures.

Human resources

Municipalities generally lack the technical knowledge, skill and expertise to perform core operational functions.

Lack of planning

Each municipality is meant to have a water services developmental plan (WSDP) along with its integrated developmental plan (IDP). Mostly, these plans are outdated or not implemented. Maintenance, for example, is in most cases no longer performed as a preventative measure but on a reactive basis.


As a result of financial and capacity restraints, municipalities are facing a serious backlog in infrastructure maintenance. They lose almost a third of their water supply.

Non-revenue water use accounts to some 37% of water used. This is water lost through faulty infrastructure, commercial losses (billing errors or theft), and unbilled authorised consumption like fire fighting.

Of enormous concern is the proper functioning of wastewater treatment works. Almost half of the country’s 824 wastewater treatment facilities is in a poor or critical condition. This translates into raw sewage flowing into primary water resources like the Vaal River, severly compromising the quality of water.

Source: Michelle Toxopeus, Legal Researcher, Helen Suzman Foundation

South Africa’s rivers

The country’s rivers tend to be in a weakened condition with over 80% of them under threat (Day, 2017). The main problems affecting the quality of the country’s river water include faecal pollution, eutrophication (the inflow of nitrates and phosphates), high salinity, high toxicity (from, among other sources, agricultural pesticides) and acid mine drainage. Faecal pollution (which leads to diseases like cholera and typhoid) and pesticides need to be monitored widely, as they pose health risks to human and agricultural activities.

“If there are 100 units of rainwater, only eight units end up in a river. We lose more water to evaporation than what ends up in a river. The era of dam building is over, and the future of water storage lies in managed underground storage aquifers”, Prof Anthony Turton, water resource management specialist.

Climate change

The South African agricultural sector will have to plan for the uncertainty introduced by climate change, which is already playing havoc with the country’s water security.

  • Predictions for low rainfall and higher temperatures will result in more evaporation and reduced infiltration.
  • Floods and droughts will be more frequent or more intense.
  • More forceful storms may increase river and groundwater flow, and water storage will become more important.
  • It is also fairly sure that the western side of South Africa will become hotter and drier.
Source: Mike Muller
Further reference:
  • Read “Government or God: South Africa’s water crisis” (2019, August 30), an Eye Witness News feature at https://ewn.co.za/features/land-of-thirst.
  • The web pages of the Resource Quality Services Directorate of the Department of  Water & Sanitation (DWS) are at www.dwa.gov.za/iwqs.
  • Read about miniSASS, a tool which can be used by anybody to monitor the health of a river, at www.minisass.org.
  • The reader is referred to other documents listed under the “Websites & publications” heading towards the end of this page.

National strategy and government contacts

South Africa’s Constitution and the Bill of Rights enshrine the basic human right to have access to sufficient water and a safe and healthy environment.

  • The two Acts that enable government to fulfil these rights through the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) are: (i) The National Water Act, 1998 (Act 36 of 1998), which aims to ensure that water resources are protected, used, developed, conserved, managed and controlled in a sustainable manner, for the benefit of everyone in South Africa; (ii) The Water Services Act, 1997 (Act 108 of 1997), which created a regulatory framework within which water services could be provided. The different acts regarding water are available under the “documents” menu option on www.dwa.gov.za.
  • Go to the Parliamentary Monitoring Group website – www.pmg.org.za – for Annual Reports and briefings of the Department and Water Boards.
  • The National Water Resource Strategy (NWRS), an assessment of the supply-demand ratio in relation to water resources, was initiated in 2004. It has been reviewed and NWRS2 was finalised by parliament in 2013. The strategic objectives are aligned to the National Water Act and the National Development Plan (NDP).
  • The National Water and Sanitation Master Plan is seen as a consolidation of various policies/strategies/legislation (including the National Water Act and National Water Resource Strategy 2) into one plan. Unveiled in November 2019, it spells out government’s short, medium, and long-term strategy to secure water security in the country. The Master Plan seeks to realize the goals enshrined in the Constitution of South Africa, National Development Plan, as well as Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
  • Read about other DHSWS programmes, plans and strategies in the yearbook at www.gcis.gov.za or at www.dwa.gov.za.
  • Water resources and services are dealt with in chapter 4 of the National Development Plan (NDP). The 2030 NDP goals seek to provide affordable and reliable to sufficient and safe water and hygienic sanitation. The NDP recognises deteriorating water quality as “a particular problem”. It comments on the importance of “routine and preventative maintenance at municipal treatment plants to keep our water clean. Another cause is the expansion of mining in areas like the Mpumalanga Highveld. It lauds the progress in ensuring greater access to water. While noting the improvement in the Eastern Cape, it makes the point that 75% access is still below the national average. The NDP calls on the country to assure water supplies by investment and reuse. To reduce demand, rather than simply increasing supply is seen as important. Desalinisaion is looked at as a strategy. It lists policy issues and the actions required to meet the 2030 goals. Find the document at www.gov.za/issues/national-development-plan-2030.
  • Find other legislation which has an impact on the water sector at www.waternet.co.za. This includes the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (Act 107 of 1998), Lake Areas Development Act, 1975 (Act 39 of 1975) and the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, 1983 (Act 43 of 1983).



  • Department of Water & Sanitation (DWS) www.dws.gov.za Details of provincial customer care walk in help centres can be found on the website at www.dwa.gov.za/CustomerCare/ProvincialCustomerCare.aspx
  • A National Water Resources Infrastructure Agency is planned to oversee the supply of water across the country (Mkhwanazi 2021).
  • Available from the Government Information & Communication Systems (GCIS) is a new annual, Official Guide to South Africa, the ninth chapter of which is Energy & Water. The notes are shorter than the GCIS yearbook. The Water and Sanitation half includes overviews of the following role players: Water boards, Catchment management agencies (CMAs), Water-user associations (WUAs), Water Research Commission (WRC), Water Trading Entity (WTE), Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA), Komati River Basin Water Authority and the Water Tribunal. It ends with three paragraphs on the Strategic Water Partners Network (SWPN).
  • Water boards are the affiliates of the South African Association of Water Utilities (SAAWU), see www.saawu.org.za [not working, 15 February 2022]
  • Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) www.environment.gov.za
  • Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) Water Use and Irrigation Development www.dalrrd.gov.za and www.ruraldevelopment.gov.za Water is required for socio-economic development and growth. Access to clean and piped water is one of the biggest challenges undermining the progress of the rural development.
  • National Treasury www.treasury.gov.za
  • South African Weather Service www.weathersa.co.za
  • South African Local Government Association (SALGA) www.salga.org.za Find the “Municipalities” option on the website.
  • South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) www.sabs.co.za


Further reference:

Water resources management, infrastructure planning and development
Regulating water services
– Consolidated water boards
– Rand Water
– Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA)
– Umgeni Water
– The Water Trading Entity
Other Entities
– Breede‐Gouritz Catchment Management Agency
– Inkomati‐Usuthu Catchment Management Agency
– Water Research Commission
National Water Policy
– National Water Resource Strategy 2 (NWRS2)
– Raw Water Pricing Strategy
– National Groundwater Strategy
– Reuse Strategy
– Infrastructure upgrades and bilateral agreements
– Rainwater harvesting (RWH)
– Desalination Strategy
– Dams and water schemes
– Groundwater resources
– Managing and developing water resources
– Managing water quality and wastewater
Strategic Integrated Projects (SIPs)
Dam Safety Rehabilitation Programme
Water Allocation Reform Programme
Women in Water
Learning Academy
Management of water conservation and demand
Enhanced local government support approach
Freshwater Programme
Monitoring programmes
National Chemical Monitoring Programme (NCMP)
Integrated Water Quality Management Strategy
Managing water resources under a changing climate
National Water and Sanitation Master Plan (NW&SMP)
National Aquatic Ecosystem Health Monitoring Programme (NAEHMP)
National Toxicity Monitoring Programme
Education and awareness
– Youth development and National Water Week
Regional and international cooperation and initiatives
Acid Mine Drainage




Role players

Associations, industry bodies and NGOs

Find farmer unions on the “Organised agriculture” page.

  • Agri SA Water Desk Janse Rabie www.agrisa.co.za
  • Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) www.agbiz.co.za
  • Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD) www.award.org.za
  • Centre for Environmental Rights www.cer.org.za
  • Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) www.ewt.org.za
  • Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) www.emg.org.za Contact the Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) for documents and DVDs like “Leaks, debt and devices: a community seeks alternatives (2013, 6 min) “, “Water is Life (2008) – A look at some of the issues facing water-stressed communities” and “Water and climate change “.
  • Federation for a Sustainable Environment www.fse.org.za
  • Hippo Water Roller Project www.hipporoller.org People are able to transport almost five times the amount of water in one trip, without having to carry 20 kilograms on their heads.
  • Mvula Trust https://themvulatrust.org.za The largest NGO supporting water and sanitation development in South Africa, it has offices across the country.
  • National Business Initiative (NBI) – water efficiency one of their foci. See www.yametsi.co.za (the Kopano ya Metsi programme) and www.nbi.org.za.
  • Save the Vaal Environment (SAVE) www.save.org.za The Vaal River system supplies water to 60% of the economy, 45% of the country’s population (Balzer, 2014).
  • Social Justice Coalition (SJC) www.sjc.org.za
  • South African Association of Water Utilities (SAAWU) Represents Amatola Water, Bloem Water, Magalies Water, Mhlathuze Water, Midvaal Water, Lepelle Water, Rand Water, Sedibeng Water, Trans Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) and Umgeni Water.
  • South African National Committee on Large Dams www.sancold.org.za
  • South African Institute of Agricultural Engineers (SAIAE) http://saiae.co.za
  • South African Irrigation Institute www.sabi.co.za
  • South African Water Caucus (SAWC) is a network of more than 20 community-based organisations, non-government organisations and trade unions. Contact them through the Environmental Monitoring Group.
  • Southern African Society of Aquatic Scientists www.riv.co.za/sasaqs
  • Strategic Water Partners Network South Africa (SWPN) www.swpn.org.za
  • Water Institute of South Africa (WISA) www.wisa.org.za The Water Institute of Southern Africa (WISA) is a voluntary non-profit association comprising water sector professionals, interested parties, companies, government departments, educational and research institutions, local authorities and associated organisations.
  • Water Users Associations (WUAs) include all sectors dependent on a specific water resource which they utilise.
  • Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA) www.wessa.org.za
  • World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) SA www.wwf.org.za.


Training and research

  • ARC-Soil, Climate and Water (ARC-SCW) www.arc.agric.za A wide field of water management aspects are addressed by ARC-SCW. Areas of water management such as improving dryland water use efficiency through water harvesting and conservation agriculture; managing water quality in the environment and for agricultural use; drought and flood monitoring and response farming to climatic conditions are but a few water issues addressed. ARC-SCW is committed to improving water management in South Africa with its ever-increasing water shortages.
  • ASSET Research https://assetresearch.org.za
  • Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Water Research Centre www.csir.co.za
  • DWS Learning Academy www.dwa.gov.za/LearningA/
  • Energy and Water SETA (EWSETA) www.ewseta.org.za The Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) related to water.
  • Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA) www.ecsa.co.za
  • Environmental Monitoring Group (EMG) www.emg.org.za
  • Freshwater Research Centre http://frcsa.org.za
  • North-West University (Potchefstroom Campus) (i) Centre for Water Sciences and Management www.waterscience.co.za (ii) Ater Research Group  http://natural-sciences.nwu.ac.za/WRG
  • North-West University The South African Water History Archival Repository (SAWHAR) is permanently based in the new library at the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University.
  • Rhodes University Institute for Water Research www.ru.ac.za/iwr/
  • Included in the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA)-accredited qualifications are ones like “Maintain basic water quality”, “Monitor water quality”, “Maintain water quality parameters” and “Explain the prevention and treatment of animal diseases”. Find the Qualifications and Learning Material option at www.agriseta.co.za.
  • Stellenbosch University Water Institute www.sun.ac.za/water
  • Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Department of Environmental, Water & Earth Sciences www.tut.ac.za
  • University of Cape Town Future Water research Institute www.futurewater.uct.ac.za
  • University of the Free State (i) Institute for Groundwater Studies www.ufs.ac.za/igs (ii) Centre for Environmental Management www.ufs.ac.za/cem
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal (i) Bioresources Engineering http://bioeng.ukzn.ac.za (ii) Centre of Water Resources Research http://cwrr.ukzn.ac.za
  • University of Pretoria Water Institute www.up.ac.za/waterup
  • University of Venda Department of Hydrology and Water Resources www.univen.ac.za
  • University of the Western Cape Institute for Water Studies (IWS) www.uwc.ac.za
  • University of the Witwatersrand Centre in Water Research and Development (CIWaRD) www.wits.ac.za/ciward
  • Water Research Commission (WRC) Water Utilisation in Agriculture: Dr Gerhard Backeberg www.wrc.org.za Find the hundreds of documents and the “Research” option on the website.
  • Water Resources Group www.2030wrg.org


Companies involved

Water purification and recycling solutions



Find a complete list on the “Irrigation” page.

Consultants and services

Tanks, instrumentation, pumps and other equipment

See “Water storage”, “Irrigation” and “Pumps and generators” pages.



Websites and publications



Visit the websites of the various role players, mentioned earlier on this page.




Some articles



Refer to the many websites under the “African business environment” and “International business environment” headings.


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