South Africa: Race-Based Quotas for Water Licences Worry Farmers

Courtesy of The Africa Report, a report on  how South Africa’s ruling ANC has drafted a water licence bill that is seen by some as being race-based and threatening to agriculture:

Farmer Dirk Kegta is frustrated that to get new water-drawing rights from the Vaal River in South Africa’s maize belt in the Free State Province, he must give 30% of his farm’s equity to ‘blacks’.

“I hope this is a joke, or else our farms will be impossible to cultivate and raise livestock on,” he tells The Africa Report.

South Africa is enjoying a record harvest of 16.3m tons of maize, but farmers like Kegta fear race-based water quotas will bring them to their knees.

The liberal, white-dominated opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) calls the proposed water laws a re-introduction of ‘racial discrimination on an unprecedented scale’.

US outlets have gone further, charging that South Africa is ‘limiting water to whites’. The ANC has been accused of rushing populist, but controversial, laws as a leverage to retain power ahead of the 2024 elections.

Surprise legislation

Water allocation licences and regulation of these licences are crucial for farm irrigation, food security, support for labour and income generation from exports, Kevin Winter, geographical scientist at the Future Water Institute, University of Cape Town, tells The Africa Report.

“The (water) bill comes as a surprise in the way it is being conceptualised as a forerunner to the 2024 elections, perhaps as an attempt by the ANC to woo black voters,” he says.

The African National Congress (ANC) government is drafting new laws whereby applicants who exceed certain water-usage thresholds or withdraw over a certain amount from streams will be required to meet strict racial quotas to continue accessing water.

According to draft bills being prepared by the water ministry, enterprises that seek licences to draw or store water commercially will need to offer 25%-75% of their equity to ‘black’ South Africans. Failure to comply will result in being denied a licence.

Public comment on the proposed laws closed on 19 July, said Winter.

Contested liquid

South Africa already became a water-scarce country many years ago, never mind water-stressed, Neil Macleod, ex-director of water and sanitation at Durban municipality, told The Africa Report in July. He cited a combination of climate change and mismanagement for the dire state.

Water, who accesses it and how much, is a historical and racial sore point in South Africa. The ANC calls it ‘water apartheid’ – saying a minority of South Africans (mainly white farmers) own or have access to the major share of South Africa’s water bodies.

‘Every drop counts’

Winter separates the political banter from the technical facts on South Africa’s water situation.

“Racial allocation of water and land will dominate the South African socio-political environment for generations to come,” he says. “What cannot wait is the increasing food crisis and means of producing food without harming an agri-industry that is productive and using water resources as efficiently as possible where every drop counts in catchments that are under severe threat,” he says.

Estimates suggest that only 10% (1.3m hectares) of South Africa’s agricultural land is under irrigation, the rest is rainfed, Winter says.

Any farm that draws more than 250,000 cubic metres of water per annum is ‘extremely large’ and it is possible that this threshold for offering shares to blacks will not affect many farmers.

Do no harm

However, given the relatively small amount of irrigation farming, the proposed law is unlikely to challenge the water ownership status quo in its current form, says Winter.

A significant challenge is transforming agriculture production processes that will produce more with less water and finding safe ways to reuse treated water, he adds.

“I can’t see how a reallocation of water licences will solve ‘water access inequalities’,” he says.

Beneath the furore surrounding race-based quotas for water licenses, Winter sees something sensitive. “It is also a recognition the land restitution programme is failing and that the government is leveraging water allocations as a means of accelerating land reform,” he adds.

This entry was posted on Sunday, September 17th, 2023 at 3:36 am and is filed under South Africa.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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