The great water heist
At least 100 illegal dams being used to siphon off precious resource in drought-ravaged Kouga region
More than 100 illegal dams are being used to steal precious water in the crucial Kouga catchment region – and it could be just the tip of the iceberg.
More than 1,000 dams on farms bordering the Kouga River and its network of tributaries are being investigated to establish if water is being siphoned off unlawfully.
The discovery of illegal dams was made during a verification and validation process by the department of water and sanitation into why catchment area water levels remained low – despite rainfall this year.
Of the 1,090 dams in the Kouga Dam area, more than 100 have already been found to be illegal and drawing water from the Kouga River.
Authorities suspect hundreds more could be found as the probe continues.
The Kouga Dam supplies water for both irrigation and drinking to Jeffreys Bay, St Francis Bay, Humansdop, Hankey, Patensie and, indirectly, Nelson Mandela Bay.
Last month, the situation in the Kouga catchment area reached a critical level and the Kouga municipality announced water rationing in Hankey and Patensie.
About 200 farms in the Gamtoos River area are already feeling the pinch, with water use on these farms having been severely restricted, leading to thousands of job losses.
The Kouga River originates near Uniondale and flows eastward, joining the Groot River to form the Gamtoos.
Its main tributary is the Baviaanskloof River.
Provincial water and sanitation chief director Portia Makhanya said the discovery of illegal dams had been made during a probe along the Kouga River and catchment area.
Makhanya, who briefed the provincial government about the issue last week, said officials had begun using aerial surveillance and spotted dams – in some cases, several – on farms.
“I can confirm we have already identified over a hundred possible illegal dams to date, but the probe is still [in] its infancy. As it progresses we suspect more [possibly illegal] dams will be found.”
Makhanya said her team was busy with a verification process of the remaining 900odd dams.
“There are guidelines and permissions that one needs to have. Firstly, the department has to give permission based on several factors, including how it impacts those in other nearby farms and towns.
“Based on this and the catchment projections, we can deny requests for such dams or implement restrictions.”
Asked about the effect of the illegal dams, Makhanya said cumulatively they affected thousands of people in nearby farms, towns and metros.
“Every drop counts and we are still quantifying the amount of water taken by these illegal dams.”
When asked how these illegal dams operate, Makhanya said farmers either pump water directly out of the river into a storage dam or capture the water flow in a man-made catchment dam along tributaries.
“We are still looking into how exactly some of these dams are taking the water. One needs to remember this is also a national issue. It occurs upstream of several dams, not only this one specific dam.”
Makhanya said officials had met with farming associations in the region and warned farmers about illegal dams.
“We are saying, come forward and help us help you so we can all work together to find a solution for everyone.
“Not one farmer has come forward yet.
“The next step is to initiate a team on the ground to go to the farms and ensure compliance.”
Kouga mayor Horatio Hendricks said of the estimated 1,090 dams already identified, the majority were illegal.
“It is an absolute travesty that such illegal activities can be allowed to continue and threaten the water security of two whole towns [Hankey and Patensie], home to some of the poorest of the poor households in the Eastern Cape,” he said.
Hendricks also raised the issue in August at an intergovernmental relations meeting.
“As water availability has been a critical concern since 2015, the removal of these dams is a necessity.
“If [the department of water] does not act immediately, it will in the long term exacerbate the impact of drought conditions on our communities.”
Kouga mayor Horatio Hendricks said of the estimated 1,090 dams already identified, the majority were illegal
The National Water Act imposes strict sanctions on those found guilty of illegal storage and the “stealing” of water from rivers. Some of the penalties include a fine or jail time of up to 10 years, or both.
The court can also order damages for the loss or harm suffered.
Pierre Joubert, CEO of the Gamtoos Irrigation Board, which represents about 200 farmers and operates the Kouga Dam and water distribution system in the Gamtoos Valley, said each farm had been restricted to using only 20% of its normal water allocation since July.
Joubert said while the board was aware of the survey on illegal dams in the Kouga Dam catchment area, the exact effect remained unclear.
“It is worrying and obviously illegal dams and the pumping of water from the river will have an impact on all the users of the dam,” he said.
“Every single one of these farms is suffering due to the lack of water and restricted water consumption.”
Joubert said one of the area’s major dairy farms had just been sold due to the harsh working conditions and low profit margins.
“We have seen thousands of people lose work in the valley area due to this water issue and it is having a negative effect on all in the farming areas.
“I am also expecting to see more farms being sold off unless something changes quickly,” he said.
“By only being allowed to use 20% of the water consumption one needs, it has huge impacts on the farms, meaning one is going to see only 20% of one’s usual crop survive, or perhaps nothing.
“It is a very scary and challenging time for all farmers.
“Besides job losses, this will eventually lead to higher food prices as the smaller crops would mean food scarcity.
“Many of our farms have contracts with the larger supermarkets and have to negotiate their contracts to stay in the game and keep food on the table.
“We are hoping the department can speedily identify these [illegal] users to put an end to it which, in turn, will help our water supply.”
After the recent downpours, Joubert asked the department to partly lift restrictions.
“The rains will bring huge relief if the restrictions are lifted to 50% as requested.
“Many vegetable farmers have already ordered seedlings in the hope that restrictions will be lifted soon.”
Makhanya said the department would revise restrictions at a later stage so an informed decision could be made.
SERIOUSLY DEPLETED: The Kouga Dam in 2017