Managing water for the future..

Katse-Dam_opt2.0There are lessons in the Libyan Desert {writer: Leon Alberts}

More than 300 South African towns and many more villages and rural settlements depend solely on groundwater, but frequently this valuable resource is incorrectly managed – leading to misconceptions about its significant potential, a South African expert recently warned on World Water Day.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) posed the question: “Would people invest more in clean water if they knew just how expensive dirty water is?”

And, from the most unlikely source of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, there is an example of how vision and innovation can turn even an apparently completely arid desert into an agricultural export region.


Many boreholes – and, in extreme cases, aquifers – in South Africa are being over-pumped due to mismanagement and lack of knowledge, said Dr Kornelius Riemann, principal hydrologist at the Cape Town-based earth sciences consultancy, Umvoto Africa.

At the same time, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has highlighted the fact that Cape Town is wasting millions of litres of water from natural springs daily due to bad management and by failing to enforce stricter regulations on its residents.

At one of its 17 natural springs on the Oranjezicht Farm in Gardens, about 2.4 million litres of clean water are channelled directly into the storm-water system.

In a statement released on World Water Day, the OECD reminded governments worldwide that they had a responsibility to invest in clean water for the health of their citizens and their environment. “For governments, basic water supply and sanitation services are a good investment, with the savings outstripping costs by sevenfold,” the statement said, and noted that “water is one of our most important global, long-term challenges.”

An OECD report noted that improving water and sanitation would rank higher on the political agenda if people understood the benefits of investing in these services. It recommended that policy-makers, particularly those in Ministries of Finance and Economy, develop investment strategies based on cost-benefit analysis, and implement the polluter-pays and user-pays principles.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day was “Water for cities: responding to the urban water challenge”, and Dr Riemann said the rising demand could lead to over-abstraction, resulting in borehole failures and subsequent water shortages. “The solution to this is to manage the aquifer as a sustainable resource for bulk domestic supply,” he noted.

“Most problems experienced are due to incorrect operations, lack of infrastructure maintenance, and limited technical skills in this field in the municipalities. This is often compounded by not accessing the hydrogeology expertise that is available in the country.”

While only 13% of South Africa’s total water supply originates from groundwater at present, properly managed groundwater has many advantages over surface water.

Unlike reservoirs and dams, aquifers are not subjected to huge losses from evaporation, which could cause losses of up to 40% of the volume.

Aquifers do not require the relocation of communities, roads and infrastructure; and the flooding of valuable land that could be used for agriculture. Another advantage is that the sheer volume of water contained in natural storage in many South African aquifers could provide a reserve or buffer for use during times of drought and short-term climate variations.

There are some municipal success stories of optimal groundwater use, and it is of utmost importance to introduce other municipalities to such best practices, as well as to train the relevant officials in sustainable groundwater management, said Dr Riemann.

He listed some factors that contributed to optimal groundwater management:

• Appropriate technology;

• Scientific support from external consultants on request;

• Efficient management structure;

• Committed staff; and

• Adequate funding.

“What is often not realised, is that the natural recharge of aquifers can be enhanced by channelling or pumping in excess surface water during the rainy season – water which would otherwise simply have run back to the sea or evaporated,” he added.

Cape Town example

At a workshop in Cape Town ahead of World Water Day, Mark Botha from the WWF-SA said large volumes of water from springs and mountain streams went into the storm-water system every day, when it could be used by both the municipality and residents.

He said the Department of Water Affairs and the City of Cape Town had placed too much emphasis on the construction and upgrading of dams. Instead, the focus should be on maintaining rivers and catchment areas, with the regular removal of alien vegetation.

“We can’t just keep on building new dams, unless we have healthy ecosystems to feed into them; we are not living in a water-security frame of mind,” Botha added.

Farouk Robertson, spokesperson for the City’s Water and Sanitation Department, said that although it was not ruling out the option of using spring water, it would be a costly exercise. Even if the water were not for human consumption, it would still have to be treated and put into the
correct channels.

The Libyan story

Most people would think of oil and gas when asked to identify the strategic importance of Libya. What is less known, is that this country commands vast quantities of a different and (in the long run more important) strategic asset – fresh water.

Beneath the sands of the Libyan desert lies the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer, an ocean of extremely valuable fresh water.

The amount of water in this gigantic reservoir is estimated by scientists to be the equivalent of 200 years of water flowing down the Nile.

Libya literally sits on an asset that is as, if not more, powerful than oil and gas – empowering it to influence the geopolitics of North Africa and beyond.

History will present him as unconventional, eccentric, even mad; however, Gaddafi has the ability at times to show exceptional insight and vision.

Using oil revenue, Gaddafi built – over many years, and at a cost of US$25 billion – a 4 000-kilometre underground pipeline called the Great Man-made River Project (GMMRP) to supply Tripoli, Benghazi and the entire Libyan coastline with uninterrupted fresh water.

The GMMRP, described as the world’s largest engineering venture, and claimed by Gaddafi to be the “8th Wonder of the World”, is an impressive and amazing network of pump stations, reservoirs and pipelines.

Provision was made to use the water to turn the Libyan Desert into lush farmlands.

An estimated 160 000 hectares of land, supplied by the largest irrigation project in the world, were developed to produce food for the Libyan people and for the export market.

With food security now a global imperative, Gaddafi’s foresight and vision is undeniable.

South African interest

The potential of high-tech and high-yield agriculture in the desert is so appetising that South African farmers showed a keen interest in putting it to the test.

In recent years, South African organised agriculture, including Agri SA, conducted fact-finding missions to Libya and held talks with the Gaddafi government.

Plans to translocate South African farmers, who are concerned about an uncertain future locally, were at different stages of implementation when the popular uprising and civil war in Libya put an end to any such plans – at least, for the immediate future.

Reasons put forward for the limited international military involvement in Libya as sanctioned by United Nations Resolution 1973 vary and differ, with some alleging that the no-fly zone would soon escalate to provide more opportunities for those participating to promote their own interests.

France is taking flak for its prominent role in driving the debate for international intervention in Libya.

With most concern focused on what will happen with Libya’s oil and gas reserves, there is one alternative scenario suggesting that France has an eye on Libya’s untapped subterranean water resources.

Fresh water is fast becoming a strategic commodity, and with French companies controlling over 40% of the global fresh-water market, it is only logical that France would take a keen interest in a very profitable enterprise.

This scenario suggests that “all eyes must imperatively focus on whether these pipelines (carrying the water) are bombed.

“An extremely possible scenario is that if they are, lucrative reconstruction contracts will benefit France. That will be the final step to privatising all this – for the moment – free water.”

Is this scenario exaggerated and over the top?

Only time will tell but, before rejecting this scenario as fanciful and ridiculous, it should be remembered that a war is still simmering in Iraq because of a missing, never-proven stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.

As a result, American weapons manufacturers, construction companies and private security companies are laughing all the way to the bank.

Is it not perhaps possible that French aqua companies may try to profit from the spoils that the Libyan conflict presents?