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30 November 2020 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Leonie Bolleurs
At the National Symposium where agricultural water management scenarios for South Africa were discussed, were from the left: Emily Mathi from Agbiz; Chantel Ilbury; Prof Abiodun Ogundeji, Associate Professor in the UFS Department of Agricultural Economics; and Prof Andries Jordaan.

The Disaster Management Training and Education Centre (DiMTEC) at the University of the Free State (UFS) hosted a national symposium on agricultural water management. The symposium took place on 24 November at the Grain Building Agri-hub in Pretoria, with delegates also connecting via Zoom. 

At the symposium, the project leader of the research study, Prof Andries Jordaan (Executive Director: Résilience Globale Pty Ltd and Research Fellow: DiMTEC), presented the research findings of a study that DiMTEC conducted for the Water Research Commission (WRC). Three years ago, he applied for funding from the WRC to develop water management scenarios for South Africa for the period 2020 to 2030. Master’s and PhD students worked with him on the project.

Presenting at the symposium on behalf of the WRC, was Sylvester Mpandeli, the Executive Manager. He believes that education and knowledge transfer are a priority for the future and says that strategic partners such as universities are playing an important role through their research on water. 

Other important role players in the agricultural sector also presented their views. Prof Anthony Turton, Affiliated Professor in the Centre for Environmental Management at the UFS, who is known for extreme views on water management, delivered a presentation titled, Water is a Flux, so why Manage it as a Stock? where he posed the hard questions around this scarce commodity. 

The implications for food security

He pointed out a number of factors that, if not addressed, would have severe implications for food security in South Africa. 

“Firstly, although South Africa has world-class water legislation in the National Water Act, we failed to implement strategies to improve the quality of water. Water quality is below accepted standard and it is deteriorating. The ecological health of our ecosystems is worse. Rivers became eutrophic, a condition which is difficult to turn around. Sewerage discharge and people dumping garbage in the rivers contribute to this problem.”
He also indicated that infrastructure did not keep up with the demand. “It has been overloaded and very little is being done to upgrade our water infrastructure. The infrastructure is not fit for purpose anymore,” he says. 

Another concern pointed out was the fiscal cliff, a reality that was magnified with the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding for important structures such as the water commission and universities (playing a role in water research) will be lacking due to this fiscal cliff, he says. 

He states that we need to tackle sensitive topics, including expropriation without compensation, and bankruptcy of municipalities. He goes on to say that irrigation boards ought to be protected, empowered, and not taken over by the state. They must receive freedom to set tariffs to sustain themselves. He also adds that South Africa needs an independent water regulator. 

The insightful presentation by Chantel Ilbury from the company Mind of a Fox and member of the research team, sketched possible water management scenarios for South Africa that were developed during the research. She gave four scenarios: the conventional, the Z or no hope, the frustration, and the eagle scenario. The ideal is the latter, where water is seen as a strategic resource in agriculture by all stakeholders and it is driven by efficiency, good management, and new technologies. There is food security and good private/government relationships.

The Z or no hope scenario sketches a dark picture, with a declining agricultural sector, water misuse, and increasing water conflicts. She says this scenario indicates little new technology and innovation in the sector and ultimately a food insecure scenario for South Africa in the next 10 years.

Collaboration between government and private sector a must

After Ilbury’s presentation, Prof Jordaan provided measures that could be implemented through policy formulation to steer the country towards an eagle scenario.

Key issues investigated in the research study include governance, implementation of policy and political leadership, private sector involvement, innovation, technology, and respect for water by society. He points out that collaboration between government and the private sector is not negotiable – it is a must. 

Also touching on the point of water infrastructure, he proposes investment in new water infrastructure and water-saving technology. “The President’s economic development plan should emphasise capital formation in the water and energy sector.”

However, he says drought “is the trigger that can worsen the impact of negative scenarios”. He proposes that innovative policy on drought management should be implemented with a focus on disaster risk reduction. 

The Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS, Prof Francis Petersen, provided a higher-education perspective. He says that universities are institutions that can find solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. “Universities are living laboratories, developing solutions to local, national, and global challenges.”

He believes that postgraduate studies and short courses can contribute in terms of skills development to further our understanding of key water issues. He also says that innovation is key to sustainable water futures. “There needs to be an intentional focus on collaboration, co-creation, and knowledge sharing among different sectors of the economy to inform policy and practice on all aspects related to water.”

Importance of infrastructure development

AgriSA, the Agricultural Business Chamber, and the African Farmers Association of South Africa (AFASA) also provided their views on water management in South Africa. 

Theo Boshoff, representing the Agricultural Business Chamber, emphasised the importance of infrastructure development. “Infrastructure development is an enabler and a positive sign, and it need to be implemented now.”

Keith Middleton, representing AFASA, states that black farmers do not want to remain small. We need to look at how we can increase black commercial farmers. Most of agricultural water is still in commercial hands. The redistribution of water will impact the development of black farmers. He proposes that everyone reapplies for water rights. “The current situation hampers the entrance of black farmers into the sector,” he says.

“We want equity with access to water.”

Janse Rabie, speaking on behalf of AgriSA, confirmed the conviction of some of the other speakers, who all believe in the importance of good relationships between the role players. “The biggest risk is not talking to each other,” he says.



WATCH: Symposium Provides Course of Action for Good Water Management - Prof Andries Jordaan



WATCH: Symposium Provides Course of Action for Good Water Management - Chantel Ilbury

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