Thukela in Trouble

Many people are concerned about the state of our water resources and rivers.  Judy Bell wrote this article after reading about the discussions at a recent Thukela River’s Simunye Environmental Forum meeting. They should be a wake-up call for us all.

There is a concern that this years’ flow has been the worst experienced in recent years, which is a problem as the Bulk Water Abstraction hasn’t even started yet. The River reserve is 6 cubic metres per second (cumecs) and the river level came down to 5.4 cumecs in September. Concerns were raised that there are a lot of developments coming in and these figures are worrying.  Also noted was the fact that Sappi Tugela Mill’s water abstraction rate is below 35Ml and decreasing – as they are continuously optimising processes; and that there is an off-take of ±7 cumecs for municipal use.

r tugela river

Thukela River from the N3

Judy writes:

This also really disturbing in view of all the water supply allocations for Richards Bay’s developments that will (and already do) rely on the Thukela River and the essential role of the Thukela Bank for the fishing industry up and down the coast and the health of the Estuary.

The same has occurred down the south coast with Sappi Saiccor having to stop production at around the same time due to low river flows – this even before the impacts (which will further reduce flow) from the anticipated Smithfield dam being planned for the Mkhomazi River!

There is a general lack of understanding of the link between rain and the ecosystems that sustain flows of good quality water on the one hand and on the other, the negative impacts we have on these life support systems from inappropriate development in the catchment, including the built infrastructure for storing and conveying water. 

There is an increase in demand for water throughout KZN (and elsewhere, with export of our water to other provinces) due to increase in population and a move to urban areas.  This in turn drives  development of the remaining open/green/natural spaces, additional dams and inter-basin transfers.  We are now affecting the functioning of the remaining ecosystems responsible for the continuous flows of good quality water.  This will have a further effect on the capacity of these life support systems to provide us with the essential basics for daily living.


Water does not come from a tap!  We cannot continue to transform/develop the grasslands and forests (or allow deterioration from alien invasive plants and erosion) at the current rate, especially the watersheds and the aquatic ecosystems they support, on their life-sustaining journey to the sea.  Investment in ecological infrastructure is essential before we build more dams or transfer more water between catchments to support growth that is unsustainable – there are limits to growth and the availability and quality of water is setting the boundaries, whether we like it or not.

r sheep wetland de beers pass 091

There is hope – It is cheaper to invest in the catchment than it is to build dams and interbasin transfer systems.  Using Working for Water and DUCT’s (Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust) figures, Kevan Zunckel calculated the following and concluded that ecological investment is a no-brainer:

  • ± R40 000/month is needed for every kilometre of river rehabilitation (invasive alien plant and erosion control)
  • improves the aquatic assimilative capacity and help mitigate the impacts of climate change too
  • positively affects the river health and that of those living closest to the rivers and who rely on the resource (usually the poor)
    • It currently costs the eThekwini Metro around R 100 million/month to treat river water to potable water standards (Neil McLeod provided this figure, some say it may be half that – gobsmackingly huge no matter which one is used!)
  • This would reduce the ever-increasing costs of water treatment
  • It would also provide much needed work for people living in the catchment.
  • Avoid loss of dam capacity due to siltation and pollution (they cost a fortune!!)
    • a new dam lost 70% of its capacity in 3 years due to sediments from the degraded catchment
    • some KZN dams can no longer be used due to the silt load and/or eutrophication but were built at great cost (financial, social and environmental).

As a result, eThekwini Metro, Msunduzi Local and uMgungungdlovu District Municipalities have started to invest in ecosystems and this needs to be replicated around KZN by all spheres of government, industry and communities alike.

We have all felt the violence of service delivery protests from community frustration at just a local level.  Can you imagine what will happen when all the taps run as dry as the rivers that supply them?  The back lash from the electricity load shed we are currently (pardon the pun!) experiencing will be piddling in comparison.

We need to ensure that people understand this is a finite resource and everyone cherishes every drop and protects the ecosystems that struggle to provide for our needs.  Please help to inform and inspire your colleagues, friends, family and networks.

Some quick reads:

4 thoughts on “Thukela in Trouble

  1. Penny Letley

    It is great that Judy has addressed this issue, it’s importance is beyond words. And PLEASE somebody out there listen: we need to take better care of the mountain catchment area from north to south. This is where our life blood water comes from. It is not a matter of keeping a wilderness area set aside for a rich people’s playground, it is our main water source and should be seen and treated as such.


    1. Nikki Brighton

      Thank you Penny, for your comment. So exciting that the new Rosetta Nottingham Road Conservancy will be looking at water issues too. Particularly with Spring Grove and other dams planned for the Little Mooi, it is essential that we all keep as vigilant as possible. Nikki


  2. Meriel mitchell

    Alarming read in spite of SA knowing it is a water starved country! Kevan Zunckel’s report needs to be on every Water Dept and related officials desks/ agendas – I’m sure it is.



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