Picture: 123RF/IIKO ILIEV
Picture: 123RF/IIKO ILIEV

Should Cape Town run out of water on what has been termed "day zero", it will be a disaster of monumental proportions. Cape Town will make history for being the only world city to run out of water.

While the country holds its breath, it is well to remember that much of SA and large parts of KwaZulu-Natal are also in the throes of a serious drought.

While KwaZulu-Natal is a water-rich province by South African standards, against this background it is surprising that no voices have been raised in support of what could undoubtedly become one of the most ground-breaking harnessing of the meagre water resources of the country: the development of the Thukela basin.

While this development could make a meaningful contribution to help Eskom generate peak-period power, it would have enormous consequences for water security in the province and provide a spur for major economic development for the country as a whole.

While the Thukela basin is the source of water for many of the province’s main towns, it has been of little benefit to the biggest urban centres of the province, including Durban and Pietermaritzburg — millions of cubic metres of water currently empty into the sea following good rains in the catchment area of the Drakensberg.

Many of the main towns of the province, such as Mooi River, Estcourt, Colenso, Ladysmith, Dundee, Glencoe, Newcastle and Utrecht depend on the Thukela basin for their water.

About 350-million cubic metres of water from the Thukela are also transferred to the country’s economic heartland in Gauteng via the Thukela-Vaal pump-storage scheme in the Drakensberg. In addition, a smaller amount of water is pumped from the Mpofana (Mooi) River to augment water abstracted from the Mngeni (Umgeni) River.

While the Mngeni is considered one of the most reliable of the larger South African rivers and supplies the two largest cities in the province, Pietermaritzburg and Durban, its catchment area of 4,418km² is minuscule compared to the 29,100km² of the Thukela — it is thus more than six times smaller.

A truly massive pumped-storage scheme on the Thukela at Mvumase, about 40km upstream of Mandeni, was investigated in great detail in the 1980s by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Eskom concluded in 1981 that the scheme was both feasible and economically justified.

The dam envisaged was a rockfill dam with an impervious clay core and its 145m wall would make it by far the highest in SA. It would be able to store 4,000-million cubic metres of water, sufficient for development for generations to come.

The surface area would be 9,150ha (78km²) and would stretch back as far as the Mamba river below Middledrift. With a shoreline of 40km it would create a mini-Kariba in the centre of KwaZulu-Natal with vast tourism potential.

The studies done in the 1980s revealed that up to 20,000ha of land could be irrigated from the project. This could prove vital for the country, all the more so as the nearby King Shaka International Airport and the Dube Trade Port would provide a gateway for the export of fruit and vegetables. The plan would also neatly dovetail with ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa’s plan to stimulate small-scale farming in the region.

The Mvumase dam and a smaller dam downstream at Sunbury would operate as a conventional pumped storage scheme, with Mvumase able to supply 1,500MW of electricity to be fed into the national grid during peak periods, and a conventional hydro-electric power station of about 50MW capacity would be installed at the Sunbury dam.

The scheme would have taken seven years to complete and all planning had been completed. There is every indication that the project was stopped by the apartheid government for political reasons

Hydro-electric power is a more economical method of meeting peak-power demands than conventional thermal power stations.

Studies at the time revealed that about 400ha of commercial farmland would be affected by the Mvumase scheme. Although it is not known how rapid urbanisation has affected the population density of rural dwellers who lived in the area that would have been flooded by the dam, the number of dwellings in 1981 was estimated at 2,000.

Although this seems a large number, it surely cannot be gainsaid that households to be relocated could be provided with superior services and that many thousands of jobs would be created during construction, and truly massive agricultural development would flow from the project

The scheme would have taken seven years to complete and all planning had been completed. There is every indication that the project was stopped by the apartheid government for political reasons.

Enquiries from Eskom in 1995 revealed that while the Mvumase project remained attractive and viable, the current government had taken a political decision to re-furbish the Cahora Bassa scheme rather than expand capacity within the country.

Has the time not come to rethink the Mvumase project in the national economic interest? Is it not a fact that as our mining industry will no longer be the pivotal contributor to our country’s economy in the years ahead, export-led growth must logically be close to water resources, labour and major ports and airports? KwaZulu-Natal has them all.

Finally, with many millions of South Africans without jobs, should our country not seriously consider creating export processing zones. The Thukela basin is ideally placed for a start to be made with considerable infrastructure in place at Isithebe and Ladysmith.

Konigkramer is MD of Ilanga Newspapers