The rippling heart of South Africa

The Orange-Senqu river system is the rippling heart of South Africa’s economy. Its waters power the people and industries of Gauteng and about half of South Africa’s population relies on its regular flow.

The San call it the Gariep (mighty river) and the Basotho call it the Senqu. The name Orange comes from the military commander of the old Cape colony, who named it after the ruling House of Orange in the Netherlands.

It starts at an altitude of 3 500m in the mountain ranges of Lesotho. About 2 200km later, it flows into the Atlantic Ocean at Oranjemund. Along the way, it picks up the waters of the Vaal River and flows through the deserts of the Northern Cape.

The average runoff of the river is 11600-million cubic metres a year. Of this, 11490-million are already used.

Horst Vogel, head of transboundary water management in the Southern African Development Community at the GIZ, a German non-governmental organisation, said the Orange-Senqu system was of “pivotal importance” to the region.

The transboundary project helps to maintain co-operation between the countries that share the system and has created a commission run by member states to ensure that the water is shared fairly.

The Orange-Senqu river has a unique place internationally, said Vogel. Its waters are shared by four countries: Lesotho, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana.

Even at the height of apartheid, these countries had signed treaties to share the water.

Chief among these was the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which dammed water in Lesotho and then piped it into the Vaal and Orange. With other transboundary rivers in the region, such as the Limpopo, Vogel said the region was a “miracle” when it came to the politics of sharing water.

Whereas other countries in the world fight over water, many come to Southern Africa to learn how to share water equitably. The lessons learned and shared had helped many other countries, Vogel said. Principal among these is the inclusion of all the people who have contact with the river’s waters in any process that affects them. Only by using their expertise can a fair system of sharing be established.

Experts need to be pushed to the side in this process and a simple message should rather be used to explain to people how important the Orange-Senqu is.

One of the biggest water users is Sasol, which takes its water from the Vaal. As a tributary of the Orange-Senqu, this affects all users downstream. The company uses 3.5% of the Vaal’s water, or 120-million cubic metres a year.

Sasol’s specialist on water and environmental issues, Martin Ginster, said the region had benefited from a few years of above-average rainfall. This had “masked” the growing imbalance between supply and demand, he said.

Realising that water was going to be in short supply soon, the company had started projects in surrounding communities to reduce water loss.

With about 35% of South Africa’s water lost through leaking pipes, Sasol could save more water in this way than it could through its moves to save water internally, Ginster said.

The department of water affairs’ conservation and demand-management strategy anticipates that 15% of all water could be saved by the fixing of simple leaks.

President Jacob Zuma made this an aim for all government departments in his State of the Nation address last year.

Illegal water use is also draining the river’s ability to supply the region. The department said water theft was a huge problem. In the Vaal alone, 244-million cubic metres of water are being used illegally — 15% of the total water use of the river.

Recent revelations in the treasury’s budget about an impending water shortage by 2025 have highlighted the importance of the Orange.

Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa recently said her department was pinning its hopes on phase two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. This would bring 151-million litres into the Vaal-Orange system through water transfer schemes, but would start only in 2020.

Until then “behavioural changes” would be needed to reduce consumption, Molewa said.

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