Local government needs to step up groundwater management

Water Research Commission

Groundwater has the potential to significantly add to South Africa’s water supply mix, on condition that it is managed correctly. Unfortunately groundwater does not get the attention it deserves at the implementation level, says Water Research Commission (WRC) Research Manager Dr Shafick Adams. 

“While unconventional gas development is an important issue we cannot neglect the fact that groundwater has not been properly managed at the local level. Operation and Maintenance issues are depriving communities of accessible water and the economy of significant growth” says Dr Adams. 

About 98% of groundwater is found in fractured, hard rock aquifer systems in South Africa. Primary aquifers are restricted to coastal sand deposits along the west and south coast of the Cape and along the KwaZulu-Natal coast. Secondary aquifers (i.e. hard rock aquifers), whose hydrogeological properties are enhanced by weathering, fracturing and faulting of hard rock, are the most dominant, with major aquifers being associated with dolomitic rocks, quartzite and sandstone of the Table Mountain Group and sandstone and shale of the Karoo Sequence.

The total volume of available renewable groundwater is estimated to be 10 343 million m3/annum (7 500 million m3/annum under drought conditions). Current use is estimated at between 2 000 and 4 000 million m3/annum.

Droughts and increased demands have triggered the search for alternative water supply options. Groundwater has always been an integral part of water supply in South Africa, including its ancient civilisations. However, because of its hidden nature and the skill required to find, exploit and manage this resource, it is often overlooked as a reliable water source. The latest National Water Resource Strategy now incorporates groundwater in a meaningful way, enabled by the National Groundwater Strategy of 2010.

Dr Adams further says that in South Africa we have very good local policies, regulations, strategies, tools, guidelines, information, etc. However, efficient management of groundwater relies on the effectiveness of applicable legislation and institutional arrangements as well as good understanding of the behaviour of the aquifer or well-field being managed.  However, there is a lack of skilled technicians and other operation and management specialists, particularly in small towns and remote areas where many groundwater schemes are found. From a groundwater governance point of view, municipalities lack the human resource capacity to effectively implement groundwater governance provisions. It should also be noted that often there is no funding explicitly allocated to groundwater management in the municipal budget.

   A recent World Bank funded study found that the technical, legal, institutional and operational governance provisions are reasonable but weak for cross-sector policy coordination. The study confirmed that institutional capacity is weak across all thematic areas except for the technical provisions. At the local level the picture is not getting better. Over-utilisation and poor management of groundwater resources and related infrastructure are often due to poor or non-existent management plans and governance provisions.


It is clear that groundwater needs to be taken more seriously as a large number of towns and people rely on this precious resource. The almost non-existent capacities within local authorities need serious attention at all levels. Groundwater is a viable water supply option if managed correctly, including being supported by proper governance provisions. 


According to Dr Adams the scale of investment required in new water infrastructure over the next decade has been estimated at R668 billion: “This investment estimate relies mainly on surface water developments. Greater use of groundwater might mitigate these costs, and reduce the financial, environmental and social costs to the country”.


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