Sources of Water in Semi-arid South Africa

Subject: Science
Type: Informative Essay
Pages: 8
Word count: 1399
Topics: Water Pollution, Ecology, Geology


South Africa is located in a semi-arid area where there exist climatic variations from desert and semi-desert in the West region and sub-humid along the region in the Eastern Coast. The country’s rainfall on average is about 450mm per year which is far below the global average of 860mm/a. The evaporation rate is comparatively higher side than other areas of the world. Consequently, the country has been struggling to meet the increasing demand for this scarce resource (South African Weather Service, 2007). This paper will, therefore, discuss in depth ground and surface water resources in the country and offer viable recommendations to improve water distribution and utilization. 


A semi-arid region is an area that experiences a steppe climate throughout the year. This is the transition between dry and wetter places and is the next driest type after the deserts which are arid climates. The regions receive very little annual rainfall which is slightly more than the amount received in the deserts. The nature of this climate cannot support forests and large vegetation and is mainly dominated by small plants usually shrubs, grasses, and smaller trees and is usually inhabited by animals that are adapted to grassland ecosystems (Goudie, 2013). The water requirements in the country have been summarized in the table below.

Table 1: Water Requirements per sector (2000)

Water Management AreaIrrigationUrbanRuralMining & Bulk IndustrialPower GenerationAfforestationTotal Local Requirements
5Usutu to Mhlatuze4045440910104693
6Crocodile West & Marico445691381272701328
8Upper Vaal114795421738001204
9Middle Vaal159112328600389
10Lower Vaal5257844600653
11Mvoti to Umzimkulu2074384474065828
12Mzimvubu to Kelskamma190100390046375
13Upper Orange77712960200968
14Lower Orange7802817900834
15Fish to Tsitsikamma76311616007902
Total for Country7836333257275629648813280



In a broader perspective, the development and management of water resources in South Africa continue to evolve with time to meet the continuous growth in population needs and the dynamic economy. The passing and enforcement of water legislation and sophistication in the country’s water resources management has made South Africa recognizable internationally. Natural and poor quality water that hinders its use also is found in some of the regions applying to both surface and groundwater. Consequently, where viable, it may be necessary to apply some management techniques to enable improvement of the water quality to the appropriate standards for the particular uses (Buckle, 2000).

The South Africa’s growing population has been calling for increased demand for water. Water resources are largely developed and used in most regions of the country to meet the country’s growing water needs. The many strategies including Dams and Weirs, the water flow abstraction and rivers return flows as well as the consequences of land use; this has significantly altered the flow regime in many rivers (Jolly, McEwan & Holland, 2008).


South Africa depends on two main sources of water which are Surface water resources used for most of the water requirements in urban, industrialization, and irrigation purposes and Groundwater resources especially in rural areas, though restricted due to the country’s geology. It also has established a few major dams (McConkey, Wilsenach & South Africa, 2009). 


According to the South African Water Commission (2002), there are no large and passable rivers in the country and the course of all combined rivers totals to an approximate of 49000million cubic meters yearly which is less compared to even half of the Zambezi River which is known to be the closest large river in the country .There are four major rivers in South Africa which other countries share with it. These are Limpopo River, Pongola or Maputo River, Inkomati, and Orange or Senqu River.  They drain about 60 percent area of the land in the country together and also supply about 40 percent of its combined surface river flow. They too supply water that supports 70 percent of the population and a similar percentage of the Gross Domestic Product for the country (McConkey, Wilsenach & South Africa, 2009).

The spatial rainfall distribution that is very poor makes the availability of water to be highly uneven all across the country. This state is as a result of the strong seasons of rainfall as well as its high in-season variability, all over the entire country. This also leads to the high variability of surface water runoff and as an outcome; the rivers’ streams of South Africa become comparatively low for most of the time. There are also occasional high flows that happen to limit the percentage of streamflow that is reliable and available for use (South African Weather Service, 2007). 

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The cost and output of this resource are lower than that of groundwater. However, a lot of infrastructures is required to ensure that it is distributed to rural residents especially those living in far areas which are dry and hard to access. On the other hand, the social aspects in regards to the planning of the distribution system might affect the ability to reach rural household. Also, some of these resources are important catchment areas. Therefore, interference with the surroundings will have a major environmental impact which might affect the current and future generations. Nevertheless, the volume of output is higher and more reliable compared to other sources.


Research by Jones (2011) the current water shortage can be attributed to lack of the necessary infrastructure and funding from the current government. This is because water resources that are sufficient are normally located in the upcountry areas as groundwater, and a lot of work is required to ensure that it reaches the end consumer. Groundwater plays a vital role in the rural areas, but it is not very broadly efficient due to the nature of the country’s hard rock geology. Only about 20 percent of the groundwater is available in major aquifer systems, and this is utilizable on a large scale basis. The access to these water resources has been associated with land ownership which is an emotive issue in the country (Standards South Africa, 2003). 

The cost of drilling boreholes to reach these water resources is high especially to the poor households in the rural areas. Furthermore, the output is low, and in many cases, power is required to pump water to the ground, an aspect that increases the costs. Moreover, the cultural practices associated with land would make it hard for some people to agree into drilling the land. Furthermore, drilling might affect the soil structure in the region, thereby, destroying the environment in the area.


There are six water use sectors and the water requirements per the sectors in the country for the year 2000. These include

  1. Rural requirements that include domestic usage and watering of stock needs in rural areas.
  2. Urban needs that include water that is used in urban centers for various purposes like domestic, commercial, industrialized use, parks, and other community purposes.
  3. Bulky users and Mining. This represents abstracting directly from the water resources and bulky supply systems used in large mining and industrial purposes.
  4. Generation of power.
  5. Irrigation purposes for agricultural production
  6. Afforestation aimed at reducing stream flowing activities
  7. Transfers of water purposes from a specific area of availability to where it’s required (Berjak, 2003).


To address the gaps that still exist thereby, hindering the efficient and effective provision of water to the growing demand, it is recommended for attention to be given towards the development of new water resources and utilize the potential that the country still has. The government should support and help in improving efficiency in the use of water that is in alignment with the level of resource management. It is also recommended that measures be introduced that ensures the utilization of water in the country be the most beneficial like reallocating some of the water supply from benefit uses that are low to those benefit uses that are higher over time. It is also advisable for desalination of sea water to offer the potential opportunities and benefits for coastal users (Buckle, 2000).

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In conclusion, the water provision in semi-arid regions can be a challenging concept since a lot of water is required to meet various needs. The available natural resources may be scarce and limited, but the communities and the government can implement means of utilizing the available potentiality they have that can help in coming up with more artificial resources. These artificial means will improve the availability and access of water to the people. It is also notable that sea water can be desalinized and become very useful for those around or living near the coastal regions.

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  1. Berjak, L. 2003. Water resource management in South Africa. The university of Natal.
  2. Buckle, J. S., United Nations Human Settlements Programme, & Managing Water for African Cities (Programme). 2002. Water demand management in practice: Case studies of water demand management in the Republics of South Africa and Namibia. Nairobi: UN-HABITAT.
  3. Goudie, A. 2013. Arid and semi-arid geomorphology. Cambridge Univ. Press.
  4. Jolly, I. D., McEwan, K. L., & Holland, K. L. 2008. A review of groundwater-surface water interactions in arid/semi-arid wetlands and the consequences of salinity for wetland ecology. Ecohydrology, 1(1), 43-58.
  5. Jones,
  6.  J. A. 2011. Sustaining Groundwater Resources: A Critical Element in the Global Water Crisis. Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
  7. McConkey, G., & Wilsenach, J. 2009. The Sustainable Water Resource Handbook. The Essential Guide, 1(1).
  8. South African Water Commision. 2002. The water wheel. Retrieved from
  9. South African Weather Service. 2007. South African Weather Service – Climate. Retrieved from
  10. Standards South Africa. 2003. SANS 10299: Development, maintenance, and management of groundwater resources. Retrieved from
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