￼Upstream and downstream water use in agriculture – a fine balancing act
By: Lani Botha
Green Business Journal 9 (2013)
Eye-watering reflections on agriculture and H2O
Increasingly aggressive competition in the modern commercial agricultural marketplace vies with anecdotal evidence that traditional and small-scale co-operative farming should not be abolished. As water shortages add pressure, the upstream and downstream industry impacts on agriculture are also becoming a hot button begging for bridging collaboration among resource competitors.
Although less than a third of the planet’s freshwater is available to sustain life on earth – the remaining two-thirds being on ice at the poles, water cooler exchanges about H2O scarcity have not yet reached the level of popularity they deserve.
Industry, on the other hand, is acutely aware of how the uneven surface distribution of this constant affects not only the bottom line, but also the sustainability of mining, agriculture and manufacturing futures.
Sunny South Africa, meted out less than half earth’s 985 millimetres of rainfall annually, is water-stressed – increasingly so as you move west. Adding a tinge of rouge to this bleak picture, the warming planet will amplify floods and droughts, higher evaporation rates and soil degradation.
While South Africa carries an extensive albeit ageing system of water catchment, damming and man-made transfer tributaries, freshwater quality labours under swelling pollution, wetland and river catchment abolition, and deforestation – as mining, agriculture, manufacturing and energy companies scramble to meet the diverse demands of Africa’s growth trajectory amid urbanisation.
When I attended the Gauteng Water Summit in Johannesburg pre-COP17, the Department of Water and Environmental Affairs confirmed that 2015 would be the year that Gauteng water demand would outstrip supply, while in 2025 the buck would stop (drinking) in the rest of the country.
Although about 36% more South Africans can access potable water today as opposed to 1994, a hazardously similar percentage
of our water is today unaccounted for – that is, R11 billion or half the water in the Vaal dam wasted annually. In a country where we spend one-and-a-half times more on clothing than on education, with a corresponding premium on DStv subscription over retirement annuities, a shift in thinking to conservation wisdom means a shift in attitude rather than amplitude.
Same issues, different industry
Resource cost and supply reliability, the pace of technology advances and knowledge transfer, worker rights and compensation, waste management and regeneration, and fluctuating market demographics play devil’s advocate across industries heavily reliant on one another for stability.
The trick here is for each industry to invest now in the latest clean and resource-efficient technologies available to market – to ensure their operations do not affect each other adversely. After all, industries are competing for the same scarce resources, while time is agile and balance the golden mean.
Also dominating dialogue at the country’s first Industrial Resource Efficiency Conference earlier this year, cleaner production and improved resource use needs to be balanced with employment creation if we are to ensure South Africa’s sustainable global competitiveness.
Food for thought: yielding the axe
Although the US department of Agriculture’s latest World Agricultural Production report puts South African commercial agriculture productivity safely ahead of our sub-Saharan cousins, we are far behind the yields per hectare achieved further up the Continent and in the European Union. Aside from output per hectare, our productivity is also benchmarked against capital, labour, fertilizers, irrigation, fuel, access to markets and insurance.
Interdependence: agriculture and water
Agriculture including irrigation requires 60% of the country’s water resources, while mining/industrial and urban/domestic users each require only a tenth of our precious water reserves – the remaining fifth in environmental application, the Water Research Commission reports. To make common sense of agriculture’s mammoth share, consider that affluent households spend nearly half their water just on watering the garden.
Although downstream users may use substantially less water, the irreversible damage of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), effluent discharge (especially from non-compliant Waste Water Treatment Works) and inefficient distribution systems highlight the murky fact that water services can’t be provided without clean water resources.
However, the management of our water resources (rivers, dams, wetlands and groundwater) and water services (access to potable water and sanitation) are dealt with separately in the Constitution and legislation – and perhaps therein lies the problem.
Rand Water alone provides 45% of the South African headcount and 60% of the economy with water it sells to local authorities, mines and factories, distributed over an 18 000km2 area that includes Gauteng, parts of Mpumalanga, the North West, Free State and Limpopo Provinces. Indirectly, this supplies 12 million homes, schools and businesses with clean water.
As chief water consumers, farming and agroprocessing communities are natural water custodians. Poorly operated and overextended wastewater treatment works hold material risk for farmers, as water becomes unfit for irrigation, recreational or livestock watering uses, which directly and severely impacts downstream users.
Conversely, commercial farming increases soil erosion through ploughing, overgrazing, logging and road building – creating murky water and raised salt and mineral content; while fertiliser use compounds nitrate and phosphate levels – resulting in algae blooms and eutrophication, and the downstream harm in pesticides.
Upstream, pollution due to industry chemical, consumer sewage, mining waste and infrastructure breakdown related to urbanisation and industrialisation adversely affect the pH, colour and murkiness, temperature, as well as nutrient, mineral and salt content of water sorely needed for agricultural use.
Whose problem is it anyway?
Poor water management in the North West Province Water this year afflicted 237 local authorities and was brought on by a high concentration of industries and factories with a correspondingly high concentrated water demand – which brings me back to the importance of a balanced approach.
In the Province, business was left to mop up a problem that rightfully belonged to a District Council (water management) and Municipality (distribution).
While industry, climate change and management inefficiencies vie for blame, the truth is alternative decentralised solutions need to be unearthed without delay. Because among the millions affected by the NWP crisis are subsistence farmers, already dealing with the pinch of more frequent droughts of the past two decades, which not only depletes their livestock but also exacerbates stock theft, veld fires and animal diseases.
Urban tolling crisis
Potchefstroom residents had to survive on 40 litres of water each earlier this year (2013), while metropolitan municipality Ekurhuleni’s 3 million residents receive 340 million kilolitres annually – yet the City will spend an additional R1.3 billion over the next decade just to halve its water waste!
Fair trade: a dietary or subsistence issue?
A decade-old Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) report identified sugar cane, rice, cotton and wheat as the world’s ‘thirstiest’ crops, accounting for 58% of the world’s irrigated farmland. Yet, half the world depends on rice as food and income source, cotton is a vital cash crop for African, Asian and Latin American SMEs, and sugar is too lucrative a cash cow for the EU and US to pass up.
Looking at South Africa, where 1.5% of the land mass under irrigation requires 63% of the country’s available freshwater to produce 30% of our crop yield, PR alone will not save these farmers – should a tug of war over water spill over into their fields.
Yet only 12% of our land is considered arable and only 3% abundant for crop farming, with 69% of South Africa’s surface area given over to grazing and livestock farming. Of course, the budding, better-off population demands more animal and fish proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables, exacerbating demand and supply complexities.
Light at the end of the causeway
While farmers grapple with higher input costs and expected yields on smaller tracts of arable land using less water and harmful chemicals, they are also challenged to rethink old farming methods and tools – ears close to the ground, so as not to miss news of a tested or proven novelty.
Globalisation has brought to our shores the definite advantages of technology and farming practice knowledge transfer to the benefit of local agricultural industries.
‘New’ farming models, such as terracing and reforestation to combat soil erosion and improve carbon sinking, improved weather forecasting and insurance, conservation and no-tillage farming, wetland restoration, co-operative small-scale farming practices, animal manure biogas fuel generation and repopulation of mono-culture grassland, are begging local attention by virtue of their proven commercial and environmental benefits.
Innovations in soil and water regeneration, seed and fertisliser, and irrigation technologies will be reviewed in depth in the next issue – to see where and how we may be missing the boat that’s certainly out there!