Kouga dam
The Kouga dam. (Petrus Vermaak)
  • The Kouga dam in the Eastern Cape is now below 7%, just four points shy of the level where it becomes impossible to draw water.
  • The damn has never been empty in the more than 50 years since it was built.
  • The region it serves is forecast to have one of the driest summers on record.
  • Kouga serves both Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth), and farmers – some of whom are already bringing in tankers as they try to keep citrus orchards alive.
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The Kouga dam, which is key to both drinking water and agriculture for parts of the Eastern Cape, is now 7% full, with no sign of relief, the Gamtoos Irrigation Board says, in what it has called an "unprecedented crisis".

In theory the dam can release water until it reaches 3.1%, but it will "not be able to sustainably supply water at that level," said the organisation's CEO Rienette Colesky in a statement.

In the meanwhile weather forecasts predict what may be one of the driest summers on record across the damn's catchment area – and no guarantee that things will improve when the season turns.

That bodes ill both for the city of Gqeberha (recently renamed from Port Elizabeth) and farmers. Both groups have been able to rely on the dam for more than 50 years, a lifespan during which it has never dropped below 6.5%.

The Nelson Mandela Bay metro has imposed water restrictions, and plans to fit household taps with flow restrictors as part of what it described as "drastic measures" required to keep taps from running dry.

Limited cuts in water allocations to citrus farmers in the Gamtoos valley leave them unable to plant young trees, which require large amounts of water to establish. But deeper cuts impact the citrus harvest – and potentially orchards. 

Some farmers have already used up water allocations up to June, said farmer and Gamtoos Irrigation Board chair Tertius Meyer, and some of those "are spending a fortune bringing in water in tankers just to keep their orchards alive".

Livestock farmers are selling cattle, or renting grazing elsewhere, and fresh produce production has been abandoned.

Further north, a flush of water from Tropical Cyclone Eloise on top of persistent rain pushed up water reserves for Gauteng, the Free State, North West, and Mpumalanga. In the Western Cape too, dams are maintaining decent levels, ranging from 60% to over 80%, even before the winter rainfall period.

See also | The amazing state of (some) South African dam levels

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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