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Lani van Vuuren 
Department of Water Affairs celebrates a hundred years

The Department of Water Affairs (DWA) celebrates its 100th anniversary in July, 2012.

The department was one of the first to be established following the foundation of the Union of South Africa in 2010. Originally known as the Irrigation Department, its original function was to grow and develop, through water storage schemes, irrigated agriculture in the country. Led by a Director, the original Irrigation Department’s headquarters employed a hydrographic surveyor, two assistant hydrographic surveyors, an inspector of gauges, boring engineer and five boring inspectors. The department also had regional or ‘circle’ staff: there were nine circle engineers and nine assistant engineers. In addition, temporary staff was engaged in construction and reconnaissance surveys from time to time.

Assisting in the development of irrigation projects and settlements were the main activities of the Irrigation Department, together with the administration of the applications for loans from Irrigation Boards and individual farmers. The department also aided farmers to bore for water for agricultural and stock farming activities.

The first Director of Irrigation was renowned engineer Francis Edgar Kanthack, an expert in irrigation engineering who had worked in India prior to his appointment as Director of Irrigation in the Cape in 1906. He was the main drafter of the Union Irrigation and Conservation of Waters Act (Act No. 8 of 1912). Among others, he established the country’s first meteorological services. He also played a key role in the design and construction of many of the country’s first large water development schemes, including Bulshoek Weir, Hartbeespoort Dam, and Darlington Dam, among others.

In 1921, Kanthack was succeeded by a young engineer named Alfred Dale Lewis. Lewis laid the foundation for many of the country’s bulk water schemes, both for irrigation and industry. Among others, he made an extensive survey of the Lower Orange river (he travelled mostly on foot along the course of the river in December in 40°C heat). His consequent report served as an important source for planning for many years. Arguably his greatest contribution to the country, however, was the production of the first complete topographical map of the Union, without which the actual catchment areas of rivers could not be calculated.

By the end of the 1920s the activities of the Irrigation Department were expanded to include the collection and compilation of hydrographic data throughout the Union; meteorological services; systematic reconnaissance surveys; the maintenance and administration of irrigation works; and professional assistance to farmers, Irrigation Boards and River Boards at a prescribed fee. The department also acted as the adviser of provincial administrators on all matters regarding water supply, drainage, sewerage or irrigation within the areas controlled by municipalities and public institutions.

In 1946, the department established a Research Branch, while expanding its Hydrographic Surveys Branch to organise, coordinate, and increase the tempo of basic tasks of investigation and evaluation of resources. From this point up until the 1970s most of the country’s large dams were designed and construction under the auspices of the Department of Water Affairs, as it became known after 1956 to reflecting its growing activities.

By 1956 the department had, among others, a Research Branch, Planning Branch, Reconnaissance Section and a Construction Division, which organised and carried out construction work. There was also the Superintending Division, a Mechanical Division, Hydrographic Branch, Hydrological Division, a General Administration Division and the Servitudes Branch. Eight regional offices carried out work in the different provinces.

The year 1970 was a watershed for South African water. Not only were the outcomes of the Commission of Enquiry into Water Matters published, it was also National Water Year, a national programme aimed at enlightening the public on the importance of water in the economic prosperity of the Republic. The Commission had important spinoffs, such as the development of the Hydrological Research Institute (now known as Resource Quality Services) within the department. Interestingly, the institute’s first Director was a woman, Joan S Whitmore, which was very unusual at that time. In 1978, the Division of Geography was established, and in 1986 the department added a Dam Safety Office.

The 1980s saw one of the most severe droughts ever experienced in South Africa. Expenditure by the DWA on major water resource development was less than 1% of gross national expenditure. Of the funds allocated to the department, an increasing portion had to be spent on operating and maintaining a growing number of schemes, on the control of pollution and abstraction of water and on expanding other areas of activity, such as research. Still, there were a number of considerably large projects executed, such as the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme and the Grootdraai augmentation project, in which the flow of the Vaal was reversed.

In April 1980, DWA merged with the then Department of Forestry and Environmental Conservation. This union was shortlived, and on 1 September, 1984, the DWA was reinstated as a government department of its own. Regional departments replaced the old ‘circles’ in 1987/88. In 1990, the Forestry Branch was incorporated.

In 1994, Kader Asmal became Minister of Water Affairs & Forestry (DWAF) following democratisation of the country. He started a process of consultation and negotiation to review national water laws. When the National Water Act (No. 36 of 1998) was adopted, South Africa became the first country in the world in which the basic rights of people and the environment to access to water was entrenched. DWAF’s prime responsibility as custodian of South Africa’s water and forestry resources was to formulate and implement policy governing these two sectors. Led by the Minister and a Director-General, the departmental structure included a Policy & Regulation Branch; Regions Branch; Corporate Services Branch; Financial Branch; and a Forestry Branch.

In the first decade following democratisation, DWA’s focus was on ensuring access to the poor to adequate supply and sanitation services. The department inherited a backlog of 14 million people lacking access to safe water and 21 million (half the population) lacking access to safe sanitation. The department was also faced with the fragmented institutional arrangements created by the previous government. When the so-called ‘homelands’ existed, South Africa effectively had 11 water acts with various structures administrating them, which all needed to be transformed.

By 1997, one million additional people had been supplied with access to safe water. This number reached 10 million by 2004. Between 1994 and 2004 nearly 7 million people were provided with basic sanitation facilities, mainly through housing programmes. Today, around 91% of South Africa’s population has access to clean water while around 74% has access to safe sanitation.

In 2009, the department launched its Water for Growth and Development Framework, the intention being to place water at the heart of all planning that takes place in the country so that any decisions that rely on the steady supply of water adequately factors in water availability. In 2009, the forestry division was moved out of the department and placed under the Department of Agriculture. The DWA would now also fall under the same Minister as the Department of Environmental Affairs.

As the department enters its 100th year it remains as relevant as ever before. Water is the cornerstone of social and economic development, but with increased pressure on South Africa’s scarce water resources the leadership of a strong water regulator is crucial to take us into the future.

·         Information taken from L van Vuuren.2009. ‘What’s in a name: Looking back at the start of public water governance.’ The Water Wheel Volume 8(4), p38-41.

E-mail: Lani Van Vuuren laniv@wrc.org.za




Scotch carts being loaded with fill for dam construction circa in 1918
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