El Niño rising: We need to make sure our taps don’t run dry

2015-05-31 15:00
It is reported there is an El Niño phase coming – a weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that sometimes causes droughts in southern Africa

It is reported there is an El Niño phase coming – a weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that sometimes causes droughts in southern Africa (Gallo Omages / Corrie Hansen)

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The drought is upon us and we must take action soon, writes Mike Muller

The Zambezi River Authority announced that dam levels at the end of April had fallen below the critical level.

Because of this, they could not allow the full capacity of the turbines – installed on either side of the river by the electricity companies of Zimbabwe and Zambia – to run at full throttle. The water level had crossed a red line and the officials took action.

This is potentially bad news for South African electricity users because it means there will be more demand throughout the region for additional power – including from stations such as Cahora Bassa, which provides 1 500MW for South Africa. But we can learn from the decisive steps taken by our neighbours.

Their action raises the question of whether we are as alert as they are to the threat of drought. Once again, it is reported there is an El Niño phase coming – a weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that sometimes causes droughts in southern Africa.

We don’t want a repeat of the panic in 1996 when peasants in the Eastern Cape had to be reassured that this was not some monster that would come from the sea and destroy their houses and crops. Though at that time there was no major drought in South Africa, countries to our north were hard hit.

But we should be checking to see whether we are ready for a drought.

The signs are not good.

Indeed, the numbers suggest a drought may already have started. Dams in the country have 11% less water than at the same time last year. Except in the Western Cape, where it rains in the winter, dams in the rest of the country should be full now at the end of the rainy season.

In those regions where we know rainfall has been sparse, the situation is worse. The dams on the Usutu, Pongola and Mhlathuze rivers in northern KwaZulu-Natal are only 64% full, down 20% from last year; on the Crocodile and Marico rivers, they are at 67%, down 14% from last year. Those are the regions that have had a dry summer, with rainfall not much more than half the normal average.

The dams on the Vaal River and in the Lesotho Highlands, which we depend on to supply Gauteng and surrounding areas, are still reasonably full.

The Upper Vaal is at 87%, although the Vaal Dam, at 75%, is more than 20% lower than at the same time last year.

And Rand Water alone pumps more than 4 million tons of water a day from the Vaal. That can drain the dams quickly if it doesn’t rain.

Department of water affairs spokesperson Sputnik Ratau confirms that, by the end of the winter, we may be in “a dire situation”.

So what should we be doing to make sure the taps in our towns and cities do not run dry?

First we must ask our municipal water managers, as well as the department of water affairs, if they are monitoring the situation.

We need to be reassured that the water managers know where those reservoir red lines are and that, when they say water restrictions must start, they are actually implemented.

And they must keep us informed.

People will only obey restrictions if they understand why they are needed.

My colleagues from the SA Institution of Civil Engineering suggested we ask all newspapers and TV news channels to show us the current dam levels, as well as the levels at which restrictions will be needed, just to remind us not to take our water for granted.

They must also explain what we will need to do to keep water coming out of the taps.

But we look for leadership from Minister of Water Affairs Nomvula Mokonyane and her department, as well as municipal water managers.

They must tell us what they are doing and show us why we pay their salaries.

Muller is a civil engineer, former director-general of the department of water affairs between 1997 and 2005 and commissioner in the outgoing National Planning Commission
Read more on:    drought

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