9.2 Roll-Out of the Artificial Recharge Strategy

The very limited implementation of MAR in South Africa indicates that there is more to successfully rolling out this technology than the technical capacity aspects mentioned above. An artificial recharge (AR) strategy for South Africa was developed in 2007, which included a focus on the wider issues of implementation. The AR strategy framework with its vision, themes and management objectives is shown in Table 14 (DWAF, 2007).

Table 14  Artificial recharge: Vision, Themes and Management Objectives (DWAF, 2007).


To use natural subsurface storage as part of integrated water resource management wherever technologically, economically, environmentally and socially feasible

Artificial recharge themes Management objectives
1 Knowledge Theme To create awareness and provide education on artificial recharge
2 Legislation and regulation Theme To enable water management and water services institutions to adopt and regulate artificial recharge as part of IWRM
3 Planning Theme To facilitate the use of artificial recharge in achieving sustainable, efficient and cost-effective water resource use and management
4 Implementation Theme To support water management and water services institutions in implementing artificial recharge
5 Management Theme To optimize the management of artificial recharge schemes
6 Research Theme To develop a body of knowledge that supports efficient and effective implementation and operation of artificial recharge schemes
7 Strategy Implementation Theme To implement and update the artificial recharge strategy

As indicated before, it is clear that the knowledge and technical aspects of MAR (broadly themes 1, 5, 6, and 7 of Table 14) are not the bottleneck to implementation. Rather, the bottleneck is the slow progress in institutional development for the sustainable utilization and management of groundwater resources (broadly themes 2, 3, and 4 of Table 14). This is further highlighted below with particular reference to the National Groundwater Strategy (Department Water and Sanitation, 2017).

The major political changes of 1994 in South Africa resulted in a complete transformation of the water sector in terms of policy, legislation and institutions. In terms of the new National Water Act, 1998, groundwater had moved from a legal status of ‘private water’, in which there was little national interest, to a ‘significant resource’. In terms of national importance, groundwater became the resource that enabled basic water service to be provided to more than 60 percent of communities that had never been served before in a matter of 15 to 20 years. However, despite its raised profile, groundwater has lacked the appropriate institutional development, because its unique characteristics have so far not been addressed in appropriate regulations and institutions within the overarching integrated water resource management approach that flowed out of the new policy and legislation.

A major purpose of the Act of 1998 was to achieve the establishment of suitable institutions for appropriate and participative management of water resources (a requirement for theme 4 of Table 14). This is particularly important for highly localized groundwater resources that cannot be physically managed centrally. The Act provides for three levels of management, namely national government, 19 Catchment Management Agencies (now consolidated into nine) at the regional management level and water user associations acting cooperatively at the local level.

For political reasons, with the advent of wall-to-wall municipal government and the introduction of local government in the former Black homelands in 2000, responsibility for managing thousands of groundwater schemes was transferred from the national Department of Water Affairs and community management structures to new municipal administrations. Since then, there have been many reports of scheme failure, starting with the much-publicized Dinokana disaster in 2004 (sudden groundwater supply failure from an excellent dolomitic aquifer after a complete lack of groundwater level monitoring).

Despite its higher profile on paper, experience on the ground indicates that many municipalities only turn to groundwater as a last resort or in emergencies. Groundwater is perceived as an unreliable and difficult source to manage. According to the Department of Water Affairs, more than 70 percent of municipalities do not want localized solutions and prefer regional schemes.” The Regional Bulk Infrastructure Grant puts financing under the control of municipalities, often resulting in a complete neglect of local groundwater sources. In some cases, very expensive options such as desalination are implemented as short- or medium-term solutions, without groundwater being given early, serious consideration (e.g., at the Sedgefield and Plettenberg Bay coastal towns in the Western Cape).

Groundwater specialists need to maintain an ongoing advocacy regarding the resource for which they possess the know-how, but they can only take it up to a point. Stakeholders at a National Dialogue in 2018 all agreed that groundwater development and the management framework presented there (Riemann et al., 2011) could become the overall framework within which joint actions at different management levels could be unpacked. However, the different institutions for various levels of water resource management forming the basis of this framework either do not yet exist or are not yet functioning with respect to groundwater resources.

Of particular concern is the weakness in the function of groundwater management in the national government at a time when new groundwater capacity has to be built at the regional level (i.e., in the new Catchment Management Agencies) and at the level of district and local municipalities, as well as local management institutions. Without a groundwater champion and a critical capacity of groundwater specialists in national government, the country will not be able to move meaningfully forward towards good groundwater governance. This critical requirement was clearly identified in the National Groundwater Strategy of 2017. It has also affected the national roll-out of the MAR strategy, for which the last website update was done in 2011.

In terms of legislation (theme 2 of Table 14), an important advance in the new water resource management environment is that all water uses, including groundwater use and MAR, have to be registered and authorized in terms of the National Water Act, 1998. A groundwater use registration drive was completed in 2000, providing the first national assessment of groundwater use. The most important mechanism to make groundwater fully operational within the 1998 National Water Act framework is the mechanism of water use authorization. In general, a water use must be licensed (unless it is listed as a Schedule 1 use in the Act), as an existing registered lawful use or be permissible under a general authorization. Authorization provides government the opportunity to state specific management requirements and guidance. This critical management measure has been slow to make a real impact, because the whole approach has been geared to surface water and does not cater to the unique characteristics and management requirements of groundwater.

In terms of planning (theme 3), national water planning has made advances in taking groundwater on board. One major step was groundwater becoming part of a nationwide program to develop water reconciliation strategies for Water Management Areas, towns and villages across the country, starting in 2008. These studies provide the potential for groundwater use in each municipality at a local scale and identify possible target aquifers in the vicinity. Also, various guidelines have been prepared, which address aspects of sustainable development and management of groundwater resources. An important supporting guideline has been a GIS assessment of areas countrywide where artificial recharge may be feasible and a list of possible areas where artificial recharge may be able to help mitigate water resource problems (DWAF, 2009). While planning has been well established at the national level, there are as yet (in 2021) no catchment management plans (regional level strategies) as foreseen in the National Water Act, 1998. At the municipal level, each municipality designated as Water Services Authority, must develop a Water Services Development Plan and must also take into account water supply sustainability. This level still suffers from a serious lack of technical capacity.

A key failure is the lack of monitoring and assessment of groundwater resources beyond the national level. This shortcoming is holding back most planning for local level implementation. Even the most basic water-level data are lacking at the local level, thus preventing the ability to assess whether MAR can be a viable option. This is related to inadequate capacity and resourcing for groundwater management at the lower levels.

Namibia, for which the OmDel and Windhoek MAR schemes were presented here as case studies, has a more stable institutional environment. Since 1997, development of water resources and their management has been undertaken by the Namibia Water Corporation (NamWater), a state-owned enterprise, which sells bulk water to local authorities. In the case of Windhoek, the city (municipality) also had its own boreholes and had many years of experience with the development and operation of the Windhoek Aquifer wellfield. In both cases, attention to monitoring and research informed decisions to continue to invest in MAR, allowing for proper planning and cost comparison with other alternatives.

A combination of several of the above groundwater governance institutional failings is apparent from the Plettenberg Bay case study. The lack of progress with MAR implementation in the Cape Flats, despite an obvious need for it and despite ongoing MAR advocacy and knowledge and technology development for more than 40 years, further illustrates (as discussed in Section 9.3) the importance of a water resource management environment in which groundwater resource development has been fully integrated and institutionalized.


Managed Aquifer Recharge: Southern Africa Copyright © 2021 by Eberhard Braune and Sumaya Israel. All Rights Reserved.