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October 05, 2009

New South African farmers struggle with access to water

by Fidelis Zvomuya

Thandi Sihadi stands next to a dry tap. As a maize and dairy farmer in one of South Africa’s driest districts, the lack of running water is nothing new to her.

In fact, she says, she is one of many new black farmers who may now be fortunate enough to have land, but who still have problems accessing water for farming.

Sihadi, a beneficiary of the Hereford land reform project – a project aimed at assisting small-scale black farmers, is from Sekhukhune in Limpopo. She says that despite the launch of government’s Water for Growth and Development Framework in March, things have not changed much. The government programme aims to ensure sufficient water to support the country’s economic growth.

But for many smallholder black farmers who were involved in land reform, the distribution of water still remains a concern. Water rights remain a very contentious issue as they are not linked to land rights.

"Like many aspects of our lives, particularly in the agricultural sector, we are still very far from achieving equity on the use of water," Sihadi says. It is her’s and other farmers’ hope that this much awaited water reform strategy will be made operational soon. "It promises to be a pain killer of what, to us, is a barrier in our field – the access to water rights," she explains.

According to Water Affairs and Forestry Minister, Buyelwa Sonjica, the framework offers a long-term perspective of how to achieve 2030 water security, quantity and quality. Sonjica says the strategy puts water at the epicentre of all decision-making. Ensuring basic access for all citizens as a nonnegotiable issue, she adds.

"Changes to the weather and an increasing population are placing fresh water resources under increasing stress. Resulting in an unequal distribution of water rights," the minister says.

Currently there are no legal mechanisms in place to protect small scale farmers such as Sihadi from existing laws that make it difficult for them to access water. The Hereford land reform beneficiaries have had difficulties accessing water as the current legal framework means that water and land rights are still sold separately.

The people who still control water are the people who bought it a long time ago, Sihadi says. "It is still the same as in the past that land is sold separately from the water rights. Unsuspecting buyers, particularly us land reform beneficiaries, fall in the trap and invest in a farm without water being part of land rights," Sihadi explains.

According to Mpumalanga farmer, Motsepe Matlala, in the former homeland areas, the existing irrigation schemes do not have affirmed water rights. Matlala, former president of the National African Farmers Union says in Limpopo alone, there are 126 irrigation schemes – about 48,000 hectares of land – that operate without licences.

"The water boards are dominated by industry, organised farmers and mines. There is a limited and weak participation by black people," he says. This undermines all efforts towards transformation, Matlala explains.

Despite the water rights Sihadi says another challenge that the agricultural sector faces is the increasingly declining quantity and quality of water.

A study by the Water Research Commission released recently says the country’s water resources has declined, showing that the country has four percent less than was estimated in the 1995 study. The research also showed that the quality of water in the country’s rivers was also deteriorating due to pollutants.

Less water, declining water quality, and growing water demand are creating immense challenges to most sectors and not only agriculture, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry acknowledges.

"We understand the smallholder farmers’ concern but also other sectors such as electricity, which is a major user of water, are also being compromised," Sonjica adds.

The Water for Growth and Development Framework, among other things, is set on delivering clean drinking water, and on providing safe sewerage and waste water treatment systems to an increasing population.

The minister says a very important part of water security is infrastructure development. Her department aims to spend about four billion dollars over the next five to eight years on the continued construction and establishment of 15 water resources infrastructure projects.

"This would increase the capacity of existing water resources infrastructure to provide water to strategic installations such as the Eskom, Sasol, the mining sector and for domestic needs," Sonjica says.

Other programmes government would embark on to ensure that the water resources are managed sustainably to meet future needs include intensifying public awareness about the value of water as well as curbing water losses by at least 20 percent in 2014.

In the meantime, smallholder farmers are finding that decreasing water availability, declining water quality, and growing water demand are obstacles that need to be surmounted.

"This is creating immense challenges to our businesses and investors who have historically taken clean, reliable and inexpensive water for granted. These trends are causing us to depend on rain water, and it is the duty of government to address this," Sihadi says.


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