Coinciding with World Water Day on 22 March, IRIN has produced a series of special reports focussing on water resource management issues in three areas of sub-Saharan Africa where tensions over water are high. These include the Nile River in Uganda, Lake Chad and the Nkomati River shared by SouthAfrica, Swaziland and Mozambique. To access the reports go to http://www.irinnews.org/wwd.asp
JOHANNESBURG, 21 March (IRIN) - Last year South Africa's Deputy President Jacob Zuma placed his hand on a control switch with Swazi King Mswati III and sent a thunderous release of water cascading out of the new Maguga Dam. The act symbolised a mutual effort that made possible the kingdom's largest public works project, which will benefit both countries.
"People take water for granted until the moment they don't have any," hydrologist Samuel Kunene, who works for the Swaziland government, told IRIN. "For millions of Africans, hydrological poverty is a reality threatening their lives right now."
Kunene said the Komati River was targeted for development because of its size and length. The river's basin has a total catchment area of about 11,100 square kilometres, which makes the waterway a valuable asset for the three countries - South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique - that share this resource.
"Haphazard use of the river, draining it in places for projects at the expense of people downriver who depended on its flow, threatened permanent damage if a regional treaty was not put in place," Swaziland's Natural Resources Minister Magwagwa Mdluli told IRIN.
Landlocked Swaziland entered into an agreement in 1992 with South Africa, which surrounds the country on three sides, to share the flow of the Komati. The Komati River Basin Accord [Hyperlink: http://www.ecs.co.sz/magugadam/] ensured that the waterway, which enters Swaziland from South Africa in the northwest, meanders through the mountainous northern region and exits the country in the dry northeastern highveld, would be used in a controlled manner.
Three of a series of five dams called for in the accord have already been built to provide water for irrigation, with South Africa and Swaziland sharing the expense of the Komati Dam, located near Pigg's Peak, Swaziland.
Mozambique joins accord
However, South Africa and Swaziland are not the only nations trying to make the best use of the Komati. The river is also utilised by downstream Mozambique, and in September 2002, the Komati Accord was revised to include this third country as a signatory. Although that had always been the plan, recovery in Mozambique from the instability of its lengthy civil war had delayed the country's participation.
The inclusion of Mozambique was particularly important, bearing in mind how the misuse of water reources in the region had had damaging ecological impacts in the past.
The draining of half the wetland areas of South Africa was partly responsible for flooding in southern Mozambique that cost hundreds of people their lives in 2000 and 2001, and rendered hundreds of thousands homeless. Over the years, the upper watershed of South Africa's Limpopo River was drained for agriculture, and adjacent grasslands were defoliated due to overgrazing by cattle. Without natural vegetation and wetlands to absorb rainfall, cyclones brought flooding that flowed downstream into neighbouring Mozambique, to devastating effect.
At the opening of the Maguga Dam, South African Deputy President Zuma said: "Many developing countries are facing a dilemma of balancing the issues of preserving our beautiful ecosystem with the demands made by our people who live in abject poverty."
South Africa, which provided 60 percent of the funding for the R1.1 billion (US $110 million) project, is entitled to use 60 percent of the dam's 332 million cubic metre storage capacity.
In an effort to make Maguga more efficient, the effectiveness of existing dams was studied carefully. While the 870-metre-long dam is only the fourth largest in the southern African region (South Africa has the three largest: the Driekoppies, Vaal and Bloemhof), the dam's lake was designed to be deep, and has a relatively small surface area in relation to its volume of water. Because the lake will lose less of its stored volume to evaporation than the larger dams, a smaller area of river had to be flooded to create it.
The project will directly benefit 450,000 people by providing irrigation water for agricultural schemes, create employment in tourism initiatives centred around the dam's freshwater lake, and provide jobs at a hydroelectric power plant.
The primary consumers of the dam's water will be large commercial forestry and sugar cane cultivation plantations that need a reliable supply of irrigation. But downstream in the Lubombo District, a dozen farmers cooperatives have been formed to receive some of the 83 million cubic metres of irrigation water the dam will provide.
The government hopes these cooperatives, in which peasant homesteads combine their small landholdings for sugar cane and vegetable cultivation for the export market, will turn impoverished farmers into business people.
For Mozambique and Swaziland, the dam also offers potential for a measure of economic independence from South Africa. Swaziland currently imports 90 percent of its electrical power from South Africa, according to the Swaziland Electricity Board. Once a hydroelectric generating facility goes on line, however, the Maguga Dam has the capacity to meet 50 percent of the kingdom's electricity needs.
With Mozambique now a signatory to the Komati accord, renegotiations are to follow to allow the possible construction of more dams in that country, or to guarantee it a fair share of the river's resources, so the Komati's flow will not be severely interrupted in Swaziland and South Africa before reaching Mozambique.
For more details on the social impact of Maguga Dam see: [http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=26098]
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