The great wa­ter heist

At least 100 il­le­gal dams be­ing used to siphon off pre­cious re­source in drought-rav­aged Kouga re­gion

Weekend Post (South Africa) - - Front page - Gareth Wil­son wilsong@ti­soblack­

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

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