MBABANE, Swaziland, Apr 28 (TerraViva) – At Ekuvinjelweni village, in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, the Komati River flows clear and fast through the mountains.
Along its banks here are commercial farms with intensive irrigation works, mixed with subsistence farmers who rely on rain for their fields and livestock – a tricky proposition in an area that has endured severe droughts in the past.
The water in the Inkomati River Basin, which stretches across South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique, is fully accounted for. There are an estimated two million people in the basin, but domestic use accounts for only a small proportion of water use.
Agriculture and forestry are the two leading consumers, followed by transfers of water outside the basin, some to water sugar cane plantations in other catchment areas, but mostly to cool coal-fired electricity plants in the nearby Limpopo Basin.
The 1992 Komati Accord between Swaziland and South Africa precisely quantified allocations of water to each party, also reserving a share for Mozambique further downstream. Despite the fact that apartheid South Africa supported Renamo rebels against Mozambique’s post-liberation government, all three countries had consulted over water management of the basin from the early 1980s, when the Tripartite Permanent Technical Committee was formed.
Mozambique eventually joined the Accord in 2002.
The drought that hit the area between 1989 and 1994 caused very low water levels in the river by the time it reached Mozambique, provoking bitter complaints from those furthest downstream that their needs were not being respected by farmers upriver. Even at time of lower water stress, farmers regularly complain about their allocations.
“Historically we used to have conflicts with our neighbours (South Africa) with regards to the water use along the Komati basin because that’s where we have a lot of farmers,” said Sakhiwe Nkomo, the senior water engineer at the Swazi Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy.
The Agreement on the Development and Utilisation of the Komati River Basin of 1992 agreed to the construction of the Maguga Dam in Swaziland and Driekoppies dam in South Africa.
“The idea was improve reliability of water use among existing and new farmers,” said Nkomo. And it seems to be working.
According to district manager for Emandla Ekuphila Water District, Anne Kruger, water users previously had to use their allocations as the water flowed by, whether they needed it at that particular moment or not.
“The volume-per-unit-time allocation allocated water at a fixed rate without considering the seasonal crop demands and allowance for banking during wet season or equipment breakdown,” said Kruger, who represents sugarcane farmers.
The Komati Basin Water Authority (KOBWA) now uses a Fractional Water Allocation and Reservoir Capacity Sharing (FWRCS) system. The two dams, said Kruger, enable farmers to store their allocated water and only use it as and when the need arises.
Each week they place an order, and – within the limits of their allocations and the basin’s management plan – a corresponding amount of water is released into the river.
“With the current system (FWRCS), which is volume-based allocation, water users are in control of their entitlements as it allows them to decide when and how much of their allocated volume they want to utilise,” explained Kruger.
Farmers use the water they save during dry seasons when the level of the river would otherwise be low. Nkomo said during dry seasons KOBWA rations water which also used to cause conflict among farmers.
“When there is scarcity of water farmers ask more questions than usual but now we hardly face that problem,” said Nkomo.
There are some farmers who are not satisfied with the water allocation systems. Sabatha Mathonsi, a sugarcane farmer, said water still goes to waste because there are no downstream reservoirs to store the water that farmers order every Tuesday.
“Even under the current system, once you make your weekly order you can’t reverse it,” said Mathonsi. “Sometimes it rains or equipment breaks down and that means you can’t irrigate. It becomes sad to see the water running to Mozambique.”
Mathonsi said government should help farmers build small dams where they can store their water after it has been released from the main reservoir.
Farmers also find it difficult to accept that there needs to be enough flowing water in the river to protect the ecosystems while some of them do not have enough for irrigation.
“Some people feel like the environment is competing with them concerning the water demands, when the reality is that the environment also uses water,” said Nkomo.
KOBWA’s Dhlamini is aware of such misunderstandings, but stakeholders have repeatedly discussed the issue and now appreciate the need to protect riverine ecosystems. He said KOBWA commissioned a study in 2008 to determine the ecological water requirements, and the impact of meeting these will have on the system yield.
No water resource management solution in Southern Africa can be permanent, not with growing populations, pressing development needs and climatic changes. But cooperation in the Inkomati River Basin, which has survived and even grown stronger through conflicts sparked by drought and politics, is on a firm footing.
“We have to strengthen our compliance monitoring systems among users to make sure that we don’t run out of water in the future,” said Nkomo.
For now, water is flowing freely along the Komati River.
*Alma Balopi in Gaborone contributed to this report.