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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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In South Africa – a water scarce country in the throes of a water crisis – just eight percent of our land area provides 50% of our surface water. This land is made up of 22 Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSAs) in five provinces and considered foremost among SA’s strategic natural resources. As such, it supplies 70% of our irrigation water, supports 60% of our population, and underpins 67% of our national economic activity and supply.

The Strategic Water Source Areas were first mapped by the National Freshwater Ecosystem Priority Area (NFEPA) project, a multi-partner project funded by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Water Research Commission (WRC), the then Department of Water Affairs (DWA), Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), Worldwide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA), South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB) and South African National Parks (SANParks). By 2013, the NFEPA map had been refined by the WWF-SA and CSIR, and today SA’s SWSAs are clearly delineated on an interactive map – see

In 2016, the WWF-SA invited the Centre for Environmental Rights to contribute our legal expertise to the SWSAs project – an idea made possible through funding from the Nedbank Green Trust Fund – for the specific purpose of securing the long-term legal protection of South Africa’s SWSAs. We are proud to be associated with this project, and have already completed a comprehensive legal review to identify and prioritise the most effective legal mechanisms. Together with our project partners, we are now focused on working alongside key officials and other decision makers to help ensure the urgent, correct, and efficient implementation of these mechanisms for the long term integrity and protection of SA’s SWSAs.

Of the numerous threats to Strategic Water Source Areas, the following are of more importance and therefore require urgent attention:

  • Coal mining causes acid mine drainage (AMD), as water reacts with sulphides in the ore rock to produce sulphuric acid. Acid dissolves toxic metals more easily than neutral water, and these metals cause health problems for people, livestock and fish in the rivers. Crops irrigated with the water also suffer, with associated impacts on wellbeing, the environment and food security.
  • Forestry, where plantations of pine and wattle use much more water than natural vegetation, and reduce stream flows. Some forestry companies maintain buffer zones around rivers and wetlands and allow space for natural vegetation to flourish. However, where plantations are poorly managed, they are a source of invasive plants and reduce other water users’ access to water.
  • Land degradation happens when land is over-used and poorly managed. Nutrients and soil are lost from poorly managed crop agriculture and contaminate rivers and wetlands. When the number of livestock exceeds the carrying capacity of the land, riparian areas are trampled and biodiversity is lost. Degraded land cannot recover easily from inevitable droughts and floods.

Providing legal protection for strategic WSAs – limiting activities in those areas that could damage the ability of the SWSA to provide surface water to downstream users, and requiring positive steps to rehabilitate damage – is absolutely crucial for South Africa’s resilience to drought, and to the growing impacts of climate change. It also provides certainty for developers or investors about their responsibilities and risks. Fortunately, many of our SWSAs are still in relatively good condition, and providing legal protection will secure our water for people and economic development, for now and for the future.