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Research: KSA 1

(KSA 1) Water Resource Management

Population growth, urbanisation, development, and climate change are creating growing challenges for the water supplies on which South Africa’s families, businesses, farms, industry and natural environment rely. In many areas of the country, such as the arid North, dwindling water supplies, lengthening droughts, and rising demand for water are forcing communities, stakeholders, and governments to explore new ideas and find new solutions that will help ensure stable, secure water supplies for future generations.

 Some major urban centres such as City of Cape Town already face periodic water shortages compounded by water pollution occurrence, the latter often originating from water-dependent and water-impacting agricultural and industrial activities. This Key strategic area focuses on questions relating to water resources management and usage optimisation across many economic and social sectors, including agriculture, industry, urban development, energy, environment, tourism; etc. The White paper and the National Water Act number 36 of 1998.contain the principles and concepts used to manage, control, protect, water resources and its use.

 Lack of a holistic perspective regarding water has led to dispersed and sometimes disorganised systems of water management. Responsibilities for the management of the resource in areas such as water monitoring, reserve determination, water quality compliance and enforcement, are often allocated or shared between a variety of different administrative departments. Water-related activities and their management are also present within a wide range of user sectors, are subsequently managed by that sector’s institution, and result in often uncoordinated management. As the water resource is finite and its utilisation needs to be equitable, efficient and planned, the challenge will be to bring all sector strands of management together within agreed on management frameworks.

 Water’s special character of being essential to development and health as well as a key component in social and economic activities, has resulted in a special cultural status and consequently a special position in public policy. Freshwater resources have traditionally been regarded as something to which all members of the human community have rights to access for domestic as well as productive purposes. Over and above, it is viewed as pertinent that water users have active role to play in the decentralised management of water resources through representative water management institutions. The success of managing water resources is often perceived as a government or agency responsibility whereas water policies carve a space for robust stakeholder involvement in all matters relating to monitoring, use and enforcement of rules. This KSA will have a special focus to this area. 

The use of water in the various social and economic contexts has typically been at most very low-cost; probably compromising the viability of decentralised institutions. There are important implications of subsidies and cost recovery in an era of water stress, among which are water profligacy and wasteful practices, or mismanaged water services and infrastructures. In the face of water shortages and environmental concerns, discussions in some international fora have called for water to be regarded as a social and public good and not to be available for the marketplace. This is particularly relevant in the South African socio-economic context where inequitable access to water remains rive. The recognition of existing lawful users from the past laws has reinforced this reality. However, the NWA provides for a number of mechanisms to make sure that there is a rectification of this situation through compulsory licensing, schedule 1 allowance and General Authorisations. The legal issues pertaining to property rights and the level of enforcement of reallocating water in the public interest for either environmental concerns or equity targets will require special attention.

The need to examine collectively the entire range of uses to which freshwater is put, and to design management which neither squander precious resources nor fail to respect other competing and complementary water needs, was translated into a policy and programme principle and strategy known as Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). This principle is the response to the growing pressure on water resources resulting from growing population and socio-economic developments. It comprises a holistic approach that makes the management and protection of water resources compatible with the development of systems serving all types of consumers. It is a vital part of the challenge facing water-related development cooperation today. IWRM contributes to the quantitative and qualitative sustainable management of interlinked surface waters, groundwater and aquifers and coastal waters, thus ensuring the social and economic development that is also dependent on vitally important ecosystems.

However, a change in strategic direction on water is underway. Given the complexities implied in the implementation of IWRM, the concept of IWRM has incorporated the concept of ‘Water for Growth and Development, adaptive management, water, food and energy nexus, etc. This concept re-emphasises that water cannot be dealt with in isolation, but requires a high degree of collaboration and engagement between the ministry responsible for water ministries and the ministries responsible for driving social and economic development, such as ministries of infrastructure, energy, mining, agriculture and trade. Water is therefore seen more as a horizontal cross-cutting issue within many facets of development, rather than as a stand-alone ‘sector’.


Fundamental global challenges affect KSA 1 such as climate change, population growth and urbanisation. The results of these drivers are clear pressure manifestations such as demand far exceeding available freshwater resources, increased competition between sectors and deteriorating water quality.

The current situation in which there is, perpetually growing water demands and competition is leading to deepened water insecurity in certain locations. The ability and preparedness of sectors to engage on water issues has improved with the enhanced comprehension of water shortages yet water management is not as high as it should in the national political agenda. Water quality remains to be a concern where causes and management options are well researched but the need to implement control and/or incentive measures require additional work. Deteriorating water quality has overall compromised water resource integrity and its resilience in adapting to natural as well as man induced impacts to become sustainable and be able to support national as well as regional sustainable development.

Decisions around allocations and de-allocations, water tenure and trade-offs in satisfying demands for food security, energy and sustained environmental services will become much more heightened focusing largely on understanding the barriers to policy implementation at the different levels. The democratisation of the management of water resources through decentralised management will need to amplify the developmental dimension for ensuring equitable access to water and its use and economic benefits.   

 The KSA will support the knowledge base in addressing the above impacts through 5 focus areas as defined in the diagram below from institutional arrangements, reform and governance, catchment assessment and planning, water quality management, water resource protection, to water resources and climate. 

Because of this broad scope, all the above WRC Knowledge Tree goals are strongly, directly, and sometimes indirectly, served by this KSA.

Previous research will inform the research agenda for the next 5 years. Integration, transdisciplinarity, synthesis, adaptive management absorptive capacity and requisite level of simplicity will be the principles that will guide the future research approach. Emerging research areas are around water security and trade-offs between water, food, energy and the environment, the need for an equity framework and revised tenure systems for water, complete value chain assessments from water resources to raw water supply to tap water supply to wastewater treatment and back to freshwater systems or the coast. This should create stronger links with KSA3, 2 and 4 through most of the defined WRC flagship programmes; the water sensitive Urban Design and the wastewater as a resource, the green village/model catchment as well as the water, energy food nexus.

Video Clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iuEbPYIu0YE


Overview and description of thrusts and programmes



Scope: This thrust focuses on articulating the thinking for the new roles and responsibilities of the various stakeholders, based on catchment and water management area boundaries. The marked shift from central management of resources to a more localised scale is critical to the main founding concepts of IWRM. The defined management boundary based on watershed boundaries is another fundamental provision in IWRM as a concept. This thrust will support the suitable implementation of IWRM in South Africa. The further articulation of the NWA for the benefit of all South Africans and the fulfilment of the developmental role of the state within the water resource limitations will be investigated. Lessons learnt and evaluations of the IWRM applications in South Africa to date will be part of this portfolio, focusing on home-grown approaches and experiences in water resource management.


Programme 1:

Water governance and institutional reforms


Scope: The principle of subsidiarity, or, as sometimes referred to, democratisation of water resource management, has brought about challenges, both conceptually and in terms of application.  Although current reforms in South Africa are based on sound IWRM principles, to date the implementation thereof continues to break new ground, proving that institutional engineering cannot provide a one-size-fits-all solution to the new management paradigm. Further understanding and research are hence needed to learn and to decide on best practice as defined in the South African or similar socio-economic settings.

Programme 2:

Compliance and


Scope: For the implementation of state-of-the-art legislation like the NWA, a matching enforcement and compliance regime needs to be in place to ensure effective implementation.  The regulatory environment in the South African water sector is in its infancy and requires substantial support from research in creating the understanding and knowledge for informed decision making. Benchmarking and best practice are crucial here to accelerate learning.

Programme 3:

Pricing and financing WRM


Scope: The issues of financial sustainability, affordability of charges by users, transparency and corporate governance are becoming central in the decentralisation era.  The new infrastructure agency responsible for new developments and maintaining national assets provides good ground-breaking research opportunities, especially to assess if water tariffs can indeed pay for managing and sustaining water resources. Does pricing water and introducing the water resource charge exclude the poor and will it further cripple local government from delivering services? The waste discharge charge is another serious introduction to the water sector fraught with considerable challenges. This programme can project and assess such issues.

Programme 4:

Transboundary water resources


Scope:  This programme will provide tools and guidelines for resolving potential water-centred conflicts for the management of shared international rivers and transboundary aquifer systems, including development of appropriate institutional forms and functions, development and harmonisation of policy and regulation in shared river basins, strategies for knowledge-sharing and joint management of shared river basins. A need has been identified to define the roles and interrelationships between local WRM institutions and international basin organisations.

Programme 5:

Future scenarios


Scope: This activity has been assigned a separate programme to ensure that local South African expertise is qualified to explore future scenarios and answer the ‘what if’ questions in support of reflection and evaluation of national policy applications. Projecting the water resource management and development institutional arrangements landscape 10 or 15 years from now would be of interest to decision makers to define policy reviews and enhance decision making. This is considered as one of the tools for assisting in learning and allowing for dialogue to take place around options. Other tools exist which will also be explored in due course such as Game Theory especially in support of water allocation options.



Scope: This thrust focuses on developing a scientific understanding of the hydrological cycle (and inter-linkages) in order to promote systematic water assessment and planning. The thrust will promote better understanding of the variability of the quantity and quality of water available for use and development in South Africa. Recent changes in national water resource infrastructure management, the awareness of the poor state of water resource infrastructure and increased knowledge of water resource planning needs are expected to receive attention, through the support of competent and sustainable solutions. Sound water resource assessment and planning can only be achieved with reasonably accurate and consistently recorded and processed data and information.


Programme 1: Catchment data, information systems and predictive tools

Scope: This programme will support the provisions of Chapter 14 of the National Water Act, especially Part 2: National Information Systems on Water Resources.  This programme is focused on supporting the national initiative for improving the available water resource information, better management of the information and improved information dissemination to stakeholders.  It will establish direct linkages to the national information systems as well as identifying and resolving water resource information gaps. In this programme researched water resource information will be integrated into the national information system that is being established by DWA.  The programme will also support the process of decentralising identified water resource data and information from broader national perspectives to detailed and highly-resolved local and catchment scales. The need to prepare the country to cope with global climate change and regional climate variability is of paramount and strategic importance. Taking the view that water is South Africa’s key resource implies the need to adapt water resource management progressively as global climate change progresses, in order to maintain optimal levels of both resource protection and beneficial use of water for society. The development of coping strategies will require the development of informed, quantitative scenarios of potential impacts, at regional and catchment level, on rainfall regimes and rainfall variability, hydrological and geohydrological regimes, water availability and reliability, water quality, ecosystem structure and functions and ecological processes. This programme will therefore focus on the following key issues:  select and use GCM-generated scenarios of global climate change of appropriate confidence level as a basis for development of model projections; improve techniques for downscaling of scenarios from global (GCMs) to regional and catchment scales to enable or support management at higher resolution scale and to ensure high level of reliability and robustness; improve on detection and attribution of anthropogenic impacts of climate change in the Southern African context in order to distinguish those from natural climate variability and change-related impacts.  The programme will also deal with: the choice of relevant and appropriate climate indicators and variables as well as monitoring systems that need to be in place in this regard; determination of the frequency and magnitude of resultant extreme rainfall and flow events; use of existing conceptual and numerical models to utilise global change-related, downscaled, hydro-climatic information effectively, to provide information regarding likely inter-related land-use, ecosystem, hydrological (including geohydrological), water yield and water quality changes at regional/catchment level; modification of existing management strategies and tools for adaptation purposes; determining the likely socio-economic impacts for a given structure of society in Southern Africa; and appropriate technological, social and political coping strategies. Other areas that will be attended to include: improving understanding of and forecasting of the variability of rainfall, flow and groundwater recharge, as the ability to forecast at very short time scales would greatly benefit flood management and disaster mitigation and adaptation activities; and improving the understanding of global climate change impacts and vulnerability for the purposes of better informing the nation on permanent changes of the climate which require long-term solutions and adaptation actions. Through this programme, support will be provided for weather and climate disaster mitigation programmes at various levels which will include regional, national and provincial as well as other, more localised, scales.

Programme 2: Surface water /  groundwater hydrology

Scope: This programme focuses on developing and utilising integrated hydrological approaches in surface water and groundwater assessments, water resource explorations, planning and management.  It will take advantage of gains made in improved understanding of groundwater and surface water hydrological processes as well as the availability of better hydrological data, especially the various forms of more accurate remotely-sensed data with better coverage. Through this programme, strategic partnerships with international expertise in both groundwater and surface water hydrological research will be encouraged to flourish. Hydrological tools that have been developed in the past are expected to be upgraded, redeveloped or replaced by tools that are more suited to the current data availability, the improved knowledge and the recent technological advances in hydrological modelling. In this programme, the continued deterioration of hydrological gauging processes and other installed earth measurement devices will be addressed through the intensive use of new data sources from remote sensing coupled with the limited earth-based measurements.

Programme 3:  Water resource planning flood and drought management

Scope: This programme will address water resource planning for the purposes of improved water allocation, better management of water use activities and to ensure secure, sustainable and adequate national water resources.  It is also focused on the development of tools that will address planning gaps such as the absence of reliable information in ungauged areas and the persistent record gaps which exist in present data sets. The programme will promote a deliberate shift towards the development of water system plans that will benefit from real-time, historic and stochastic data on a countrywide basis. Impacts of climate change on water resources and the planning processes will be accounted for so as to ensure a proactive approach and allow for national preparedness. Integration will also be achieved through aligning this programme to wider national water resource planning needs as expressed in the objectives of Water for Growth and Development as well as through accounting for other factors, which include poverty alleviation, economic benefit, empowerment and the importance of meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Research on the planning of water resources will also address the information gaps in the understanding and subsequent utilisation of seawater in building water resource security. Saline water, brackish water, and other water bodies that can be purified and made available for regular water uses will be investigated and included as part of future water resource plans.

Flooding and drought are major natural hazards to human society and have important influences on social and economic development. The most vulnerable communities are often those who are poorly resourced since they barely have means to cope, and also often live in informal settlements notorious for being drought- or flood-prone with poor infrastructure. This programme focuses on research that will result in the development and implementation of integrated institutional frameworks and technological tools to reduce and combat floods and their negative effects, while enhancing positive flooding patterns that are important to the natural ecosystem. Research related to drought management will focus on integrated tools and strategies for early identification and mitigation of the social and economic impacts of drought, with the aim of supporting collaborative, multi-institutional processes and programmes.

Programme 4: Water resource infrastructure

Scope: There is an increasing need to develop systems for the efficient maintenance of the aging water infrastructure as the demand for the development of new and expensive water resource infrastructure is increasing due to the growing economy and population growth. This programme will seek to develop strategies and priorities for water resource infrastructure development and management to address the uncertainties and risks associated with climate change. While built infrastructure development such as dams, reservoirs, irrigation and flood barriers, are important options for addressing these issues, this programme will also explore the potential use of natural infrastructure such as wetlands, floodplains, artificial recharge (to aquifers), etc., to complement built infrastructure (but with an added advantage of healthy ecosystems). 

Programme 5:

Water security Climate change risk, vulnerability and adaptation

Scope:  Secure and sustainable access to water is essential for a wide range of critical uses such as human health, economic growth, food security, etc. However, in semi-arid environments such as South Africa, conventional water sources are not sufficient to meet the ever growing demand. Therefore, the understanding and assessments of alternative sources of water such as fog water, desalination, water transfers, etc is essential. The programme will also promote research on the transboundary water issues (wrt water quantity and quality) to ensure water security for South Africa. Other issues to be researched include cooperation on the shared surface water and groundwater resources, as well as the integration of social, economic, and environmental considerations as key components of sustainable water resource development. Climate change risk management seeks to promote sustainable development by reducing vulnerability associated with climate risks.  The approach involves a range of actions including reduction of vulnerabilities or enhancement of resilience amongst people and societies, protection of ecosystem goods and services, early response systems, strategic diversification, and improved institutional capacities. Climate adaptation refers to the ability of the system to adjust to climate change, variability or extreme to moderate potential damage or to cope with the consequences. This programme is aimed at reducing vulnerabilities among communities and people through development or implementation of systems, tools, approaches and strategies (some of which would have been developed under Programme 1, such as modification of structures or implementation of early preparedness programme for extreme events).  Protection or restoration of ecosystem goods and services that are vulnerable to climate variability and change as well as strengthening capacity of people and institutions are some of the techniques that will be investigated under this programme.  Climate risk management strategies to be developed under this programme also aim to maximise opportunities in climate-sensitive economic sectors, even under uncertain climatic conditions of high variability.   The programme could also deal with implementation of capacity building and awareness programmes including sharing of climate information as part of a broader adaptation programme.



Scope: This thrust acknowledges the significant water quality problems in our natural water resources.  Water quality is generally reflected in concentrations of substances and microorganisms, physico-chemical attributes, radioactivity, as well as biological responses to these. These concentrations will accumulate over a long-term to result in impacts that pose a risk to the human health, environment (ecology) as well as the economy. Within each of the programmes in this thrust, research will focus on three broad fronts, namely, (1) consolidation and knowledge transfer; (2) alertness to emerging issues and  (3) risk to human health, environment and the economy.

Consolidation is necessary of the vast amount of existing water quality-related research outputs in priority domains. The primary aim will be to distil effective decision support for management of our water quality problems.  Emphasis will be more on formulating solutions  (development of monitoring tools, methods, reporting systems including real-time and early warning/ prediction) than on formulating problems.  By actively sharing knowledge with decision makers and other stakeholders (Community of Practice, Local Government, Departments of Health, Environment, Agriculture etc.), and working closely with them, the decision support must explicitly address their absorptive capacity in its broadest sense.  On the one hand, solutions need to be based on a thorough holistic and realistic examination of likely consequences of implementation of those solutions.  This must create confidence that risks of unintended consequences will be minimised.  However, on the other hand, solutions must cater for the inherent complexity (and hence uncertainty) of both the institutional and natural environment.  Research will also be encouraged that heightens awareness, and/or recommends management approaches, specifically to important emerging issues, i.e., those potential or recognised concerns that are either not addressed, or are only partly addressed, in current water quality management practice and research.  High priority issues include those of national concern, those for which the frequency or probability of adverse conditions occurring is high, and the consequences are severe, and so on. Water quality necessarily cuts across various KSAs as well as thrusts within this KSA.  The scope of this particular thrust focuses primarily on water quality of inland surface waters, its management and the risks associated with the water quality impacts.


Programme 1: 

Water quality monitoring



Scope: Monitoring data is crucial to sustainable management because it  provides information on the current status and trends and can be useful in the prediction of the future.  Creative yet soundly-scientific approaches to monitoring are required that optimise information, minimise costs (inclusion of screening techniques that are less costly and detailed monitoring at problem areas) and that can be useful across all spheres of authority (including local/ catchment, provincial/ regional, national and cross boundary). 

All phases of monitoring design need careful consideration, from data acquisition, data storage and management, information generation and dissemination (with increased focus on early warning systems for protection/ prediction and near real-time reporting for mitigation), through to realistic implementation strategies.

Programme 2:

Water quality modelling


Scope:  The programme will focus on the development of the community of practice (researchers, model developers, water resource quality managers) in order to collectively identify areas of support that can be addressed through research. This will however, not limit research into new models for the prediction of the  future. The work in this programme is aimed at encouraging a move to open-source modelling platforms that benefit individual model developers, while allowing effective interfacing with other modelling modules in a way that provides integrated, scientifically-defensible water quality information.  Business models of such platforms must be as much in the interests of users of such information (e.g. catchment management agencies) as the service providers and modellers.

Programme 3:

Impacts on and of  water quality

Scope: This programme will focus on identifying, characterising, and understanding (1) the changes (current, long-term and climate related) in the state of water quality in our water resources (use available data to support the efforts of annual reporting on the health of the water resources as required by the NDP, NWA etc.) associated with either point or non-point pollution sources, and (2) the associated impacts (human health, environment and economy) of such compromised water quality.



Scope: Reliable supply of good quality water is required for the health, environmental, social and economic wellbeing of the country. The National Water Act of 1998 recognises that protection in relation to a water resource means:  (1) maintenance of the quality of the water resource to the extent that the water resource may be used in an ecological sustainable way; (2) prevention of the degradation of the water resource, and (3) the rehabilitation of the water resource.  There are significant gaps in our knowledge on how to protect our water resources in an integrated manner. While Thrust 3 will look mainly at the quality of the water within our systems this thrust focuses on protecting the water resources, by reducing the quantity of harmful materials reaching the water resources, within a broader framework for all uses. Broadly, research in this thrust focuses on the generation of knowledge and understanding of the catchment processes and land use activities that influence the quality and quantity, negatively or positively, of the water resources. Scientific, technological and institutional approaches that will help to characterise and address these problems include: (1) assessment, monitoring and prediction; (2) tools and control strategies; (3) innovation to assist with prediction and control; and (4) implementation and technology transfer options. The following programmes support this thrust:


Programme 1:

Source water protection

Scope: Source water protection refers to protecting source water (water from dams, wetlands, rivers, aquifers, etc.) from contamination and overuse. Specific driving forces, or a combination thereof, which have an impact on water resources will be researched. Integrated protection strategies and approaches will be researched and tested. The development of source water planning, control and response strategies, to minimise adverse impacts on source waters by reducing pollution risks and securing water availability, is a key component of this programme. The source water protection approach will look at, among others, land use (see Programme 2 below), vulnerability assessments and catchment plans and strategies (for both surface and groundwater).

Programme 2:

Land-water linkages

Scope: This programme will enhance our knowledge on the interaction of water and land at various scales.  This programme will focus on the driving forces (new developments, emergency spills, erosion, leaks, soil enhancements, etc.) that can impact water resources from land-based activities. The aim is also to research, evaluate and develop common regulatory tools to overcome the challenge of different technical and procedural approaches for water resource and land use management, in order to enhance our water resource protection capabilities. Techniques to delineate, protect and remediate areas, and/or the activities occurring within these areas, will be researched. Research will also be bi-directional where potential impacts on water resources from land-based activities or processes are investigated as well as the impact of water resources on land-based activities (e.g. floods and droughts).




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