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SOUTHERN AFRICA: Journey of a Working River: the Orange-Senqu

Patrick Burnett

KATSE, Lesotho, Sep 25 2009 (IPS) - In the steep valleys of Lesotho's Maluti mountains, women carry yellow plastic buckets of water across fields of dark-brown earth; a group of men form a human chain to pass rocks between them to build a small dam wall across a mountain stream; clothes are being washed in rivers; and men draped in blankets ride donkeys or horses along the roadside.

At 185 metres, the Katse Dam wall is Africa's highest. The dam is part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project supplying water to South Africa through a system of huge underground tunnels. Credit:  Patrick Burnett/IPS

At 185 metres, the Katse Dam wall is Africa's highest. The dam is part of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project supplying water to South Africa through a system of huge underground tunnels. Credit: Patrick Burnett/IPS

The road to the Katse Dam winds steeply upwards through the mountains and whips around a final hairpin bend to reach a height of 3,000 metres. From the peak, the road twists through mountain valleys alongside a 36 square kilometre reservoir held back by the dam.

Completed in 1997, the dam's wall is 185 metres high, making it the highest in Africa, and it is 60 metres thick at its base.

Built under a joint partnership between South Africa and Lesotho, the Katse Dam forms part of the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP). Through the LHWP, water is transferred from water-rich Lesotho through a system of huge underground tunnels from whence it is discharged into rivers that feed water-scarce South Africa, keeping its water guzzling economy alive.

Water earns the mountain kingdom hundreds of millions of dollars in royalty payments, its biggest source of foreign exchange.

From Katse Dam, the waters of the Orange-Senqu river make a 2,300 kilometre journey to the sea through some of southern Africa’s most striking geography.

The journey passes through the deserts of southern Namibia, through the semi-arid landscapes of South Africa’s Karoo and up onto the highveld, home to the biggest industrial complex in Africa.

Along the way are some of the biggest users of water in Africa, each raising complex issues about the management of the resource.

A working river: petrol

Four-hundred kilometres from Lesotho, in South Africa’s economic powerhouse of Gauteng, lies the town of Secunda, it's car dealerships, fast-food outlets and garish casino hotel dominated by a vast petro-chemicals plant that covers an area equivalent to 2,900 soccer fields.

It’s a factory of pipes that would stretch around the world if laid end to end, two skyscraping smoke stacks and eight cooling towers belching steam into the sky.

Water might not be uppermost in the minds of South Africa’s car owners when they fill up with petrol, but it’s crucial to South Africa’s fuel economy.

Sasol’s petro-chemicals plant at Secunda turns coal into liquid fuel, using 120,000 tonnes of coal to produce 160,000 barrels of fuel every day.

Cooling is crucial to a production process that requires 12 litres of water for every litre of fuel produced. Sasol goes through 270 million litres daily, accounting for about four percent of water use in the Vaal River system, a tributary of the Orange River, which is backed up by water from the Lesotho highlands.

The plant is crucial to the South African economy – fuel produced by Sasol accounts for around 30 percent of South Africa's transport needs, while Sasol's domestic turnover stands at more than 7 billion dollars, 1.73 percent of national turnover, according to company figures.

But Sasol's Secunda plant is the focus of attention for environmental concerns both for the large amounts of carbon dioxide it emits and for the water it draws from a water-scarce system.

This is the development conundrum: To keep its economy ticking, South Africa needs companies like Sasol. But it also has limited supplies of water and an ever-increasing number of users competing for it.

A working river: electricity

At the Optimum Colliery, situated 30 kilometres south-east of Middleburg, a giant excavator known as a dragline labours in the earth, scraping out 60 tonnes of earth at a time and dropping it on a nearby pile with a rumble of rocks and a cloud of dust.

In the background of this grey and brown landscape is the Hendrina Power Station, to which the colliery feeds millions of tonnes of coal a year.

To extract the approximately 11 million tonnes of coal a year it supplies to Eskom and export markets, 90 to 120 million cubic meters of earth is removed per annum to expose the coal to a depth of 60-80 metres – leading to the collection of run-off water.

Because only a limited amount of the untreated mine water, which is high in sulphur content, can be discharged into the water courses, the mine has to do something about accumulated water.

Previously it exercised controlled release into the water course and stored the remainder in old dams and storage facilities.

But space is running out, making water treatment the only option.

As a result a 15 megalitre desalination plant is being built at the mine at a cost of more than $74 million and will be completed by April 2010. The idea is to recover 98 percent of water as clean water, with some cost recovery through supply of water to the local municipality.

Polluted mine water – and its implications for health and agriculture – is a major problem for South Africa’s scarce water resources.

Because open cast coal mining often extends below the water table, water must be pumped out of the open hole. When mining ends, the hole floods, leading to the oxidation of sulphide minerals such as pyrite and the formation of sulphuric acid. This is known as Acid Mine Drainage and when it decants into water sources, as it has in parts of South Africa, it creates major environmental problems.

With South Africa firing up new coal power stations to meet its energy demands, the problem of polluted mine water is likely to persist.

A working river: irrigation

Even though the lower reaches of the Orange River, stretching from where the Vaal River meets the Orange River to the mouth in Alexander Bay, is a dry area, crops such as grapes, pistachios, citrus, pecans and vegetables are grown in a green strip irrigated by the river.

In this section of the river, commercial agricultural accounts for 94 percent of the current total water use, according to figures from South Africa’s water affairs department.

Farmers around Kakamas are allocated and charged for water based on a quota system, which allocates a certain amount of water per hectare to each farmer.

This places the onus on the farmer not to exceed his allocation and while it can be roughly determined whether farmers are abusing the system through the amount of electricity being used – as this indicates the amount of water they are pumping – insiders acknowledge that the system is hard to monitor and open to abuse.

South Africa still faces the headache of dealing with illegal water extraction used for irrigation, with the equivalent of 200 million cubic metres unaccounted for each year.

Despite jobs being involved, the South African government is moving to shut down these illegal irrigation operations because there isn’t enough water in the system to allow for it.

The issues raised by three of the biggest users of water in the Orange-Senqu system – industry, mining and agriculture – speak to the challenge of managing the resource in a water-scarce environment. Having enough water to support development needs, while also tackling environmental concerns, issues of access to water and future threats posed by climate change are all factors that need to be balanced.

With the Orange-Senqu river basin home to nearly 16-million people spread across Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, the effective management of the resource is crucial to the well-being of the region.

*This article is the first in a special series on the Orange-Senqu River.

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