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Wandile Nomquphu 
 Water Resources of South Africa 2012 study underway

The Water Research Commission (WRC) has completed the first year of what promises to be the most accurate national water resource assessment of South Africa. Once fully completed, the study will assist decision-makers at all levels of government to make informed choices about policies concerning South Africa’s water resources.

Water Resources 2012 study (WR2012) which was launched in 2012, is the sixth comprehensive national water resource assessment to be undertaken in South Africa since the first was completed in 1952.

It is well known that water is South Africa’s scarcest resource, and that the country counts amongst the world as parched with a mean annual precipitation of approximately 465 mm and an average annual runoff of less than 50 000 million m3.  As a result of this inherent scarcity, the country uncomfortably walks a tightrope between socio-economic development and protection of its water resources.  This makes quantifying exactly how much water the country has one of the most important tasks to be undertaken in the water sector.  

According to the WRC CEO, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo undertaking regular water resource quantification assessments not only inform the country of its available water resources, but help to augment decision-makers’ and specialists’ understanding of how the natural hydrological cycle behaves.

The study is being executed by a consortium of consulting engineering firms, led by Royal Haskoning DHV (RHDHV). One of the most important aspects of the study are the improvements on the WRSM2000 catchment model (popularly known as the Pitman Model), which is widely used in the South African water resource assessment process.

“The WRSM2000 model is undergoing some major improvements," reports project leader Allan Bailey from RHDHV. “As this model has links to the models of the Department of Water Affairs for analysing yield of dams (WRYM model) and future water resource planning (WRPM model), it is extremely important that all three models are continually improved.

Enhancements to the WRSM2000 model include the inclusion of a number of statistical graphs for checking the consistency of catchment rainfall and natural streamflow and storage yield; grouping of runoff models with similar hydrology for more rapid calibration; addition of an observed storage trace to the reservoir plot so that reservoirs with only storage data can be calibrated; extended time series output link to the WRYM model which now has the Sami surface water-groundwater interface; time series of groundwater abstractions; and added daily time step functionality for both naturalised runoff at any point in a network adjusted for land use.

The WR2012 study will also for the first time create a publicly-accessible, web-based and interactive reporting system to continually quantify both the surface and groundwater resources of South Africa. According to the WRC Research Manager, Wandile Nomquphu, it was originally planned for the website to only be up and running once the project was completed in 2016, but the high level of interest in the information the project has to offer has prompted the Commission to bring the date forward. It is now hoped to have the website functional by the end of the year 2014.

Compared to the previous water resource study, WR2005 project, the level of detail of water resources information in the WR2012 study has been broadened to include information on reservoirs, land use/water use and other water resources aspects. New spreadsheets have been compiled which provide details of this land use/water use, which will make the future updating easier. The project also intends to continually incorporate recent work by other consultants on various catchments, and to update all data.

Other progress for the year include the creation of land use/water use spreadsheets for all 19 water management areas (which have recently been reduced to 9 water management areas), with worksheets with data on dams, abstractions and return flows, irrigation, alien vegetation and afforestation. The project team has also started to determine the optimal water resources observation network (i.e. rainfall, streamflow, reservoir records) which has to be maintained at all costs in order to continuously enhance the assessment and understanding of the country’s water resources.

As part of the capacity building, the research team has presented a number of training courses on the newly improved WRSM2000 model at several universities, with great success. The purpose of the training is to broaden the awareness of the various water resource models available, and how to set up and use the WRSM2000 model for a water resources system.

“Deteriorating monitoring of South Africa’s rainfall and streamflow as well as groundwater levels remain the biggest challenge to the successful completion of the project”, notes Nomquphu. Spatially representative, long-term consistent records of rainfall, streamflow, groundwater levels and water quality data are essential for achieving a high-level of understanding about water resources. Good quality data are a serious impediment to the sustainable management of South Africa’s water resources, explains Nomquphu. “Not only are the observation networks shrinking, the quality is deteriorating”.

“Apart from the troubling rainfall, streamflow and groundwater levels data issues, which have been reported on, the research team has also discovered that reservoir data records – key to analysing the water resources of South Africa – have declined alarmingly, with quite a number of missing data and suspect readings.”  However, the WRC is exploring ways to establish a central home for water data from all its projects where hydrological data are collected.

WR2012 is due for completion in April, 2016.

Contact: Wandile Nomquphu, Research Manager Water Resources Management, email wandilen@wrc.org.za or cell: 0723069659

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