Breaking down barriers to water security for small-scale farmers

–Susan Byakika

The past 20 years since the end of the apartheid era have seen the South African government embark on developing various pro-poor policies and programmes to address past inequities. While government programmes and policies sought, in particular, to support the historically disadvantaged black communities, commonly referred to as historically disadvantaged individuals (HDIs), in practice- the changes have been extremely slow with very little impact realised to date.

Broken Sibange weir

Broken Sibange weir on Komati River. It limits potential agriculture productivity of out-grower farmers in the area

Water, for example, a critical input to develop various sectors including agriculture and industry, is one of those resources whose distribution has remained inequitable despite the provision of enabling legislation, policies and programmes. The National Water Act (NWA 36 of 1998) and the National Water Resources Strategy (NWRS2) and Water Allocation Reform (WAR) are examples of some government driven developments that were envisaged to address some of the inequities towards black economic empowerment through water.

Today, nearly 60 percent of the resource remains in the hands of the minority white users promulgated through what is called existing lawful uses (ELUs). Through these ELUs, a great portion of water was authorised in perpetuity for specific uses prior to the year 1998, when the NWA came into effect. This means that reallocation of such water (to increase water in black hands for economic development) can partly be achieved by ending the ELUs’ perpetual status – possibly through the process of compulsory licensing. The latter process, however, has been prolonged for years due to the delayed validation and verification process which had to be completed before compulsory licensing. This is one of the major reasons why reallocation has been extremely slow. There has been very little improvement in socio-economic growth that should in principle have been sparked by more access to water among historically disadvantaged black communities.

Pro-poor initiatives in the water sector 

Several legislative changes, policies and programmes across various sectors were made to entrench economic transformation among the poorest. The third priority of the National Water Resource Strategy 2 (NWRS2) responds to the allocation of water for socio-economic growth over commercial uses. The Department of Water and Sanitation’s (DWS’) Water Allocation Reform(WAR) programme is a tool developed to fast-track the re-allocation of water to poor disadvantaged communities, or HDIs. The South African government has also developed many other initiatives, such as land reform policies and programmes in the process of promoting socio-economic development.

Male farmer

Male farmer draws water from a canal to his farm in Somerset village, Mpumulanga Province


Despite enabling government legislation, policies, and various targeted government programmes, many poor communities sit with vast expanses of land acquired through empowerment programmes, without much productivity from them. Some of the bottlenecks that could possibly be hindering socio-economic growth among poor rural black communities especially farmers, are:

Access to water is only an input – not an end in itself

Many poor communities receive government assistance (e.g. through CMAs or regional offices) in processing applications for water use. Thereafter, however, some communities find that they are unable to cope with the idealised business ventures due to a lack of technical know-how of running sustainable business. Without assistance, these ventures eventually collapse, some amidst significant debt to loaning institutions.

Lack of inter-departmental coordination for support to HDIs

Poor black rural communities are disadvantaged when existing opportunities for government support are missed, due to a lack of coordination between the departments responsible for the support mechanisms. Too often, there is a farmer in need, who is unaware of government support, or how to access it. Similarly, government departments may not provide proactive support to identify these farmers, which hinders the potential progress for both parties.

Poor access to basic information and support services

Poor rural communities often struggle to acquire the information and support required to make their ventures succeed. The main support offices are located distances away from rural areas, making access difficult, with only the occasional appearance of field extension officers, who often serve to address the needs of only one department. Having locally based field offices in rural areas where various officers from different departments sit/operate, to address the needs of poor rural farmers /water users, would significantly improve timely access to information and services needed for running sustainable ventures.

Failed infrastructure projects or the lack of infrastructure

A number of water supply infrastructure on farm and off farm has been lying in disrepair with very little aid coming to the communities.

Lack of business skills and poor partnerships

The farmers are often semi-literate and without knowledge of successful farming practices and low business sense.


A woman tills her land in preparation for planting in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga


Interventions beyond access to water

Beyond access to water, a number of innovative interventions/approaches that could support sustainable economic development among poor rural water users are proposed.

Integrating inter-departmental pro-poor support initiatives 

As an example, water licensing processes for poor land owners could be coordinated with the department of agriculture to ensure that the provision of a licence by the department of water follows/is linked to the agriculture and land department’s soils appropriateness tests for crop production. Just in case the land is not viable for crop production, various less water intensive alternatives such as tourism, may be considered.

Broadening access to vital government support information at the grassroots

As a result of weak institutional infrastructure arrangements that do not adequately reach out at the grassroots, (except for agricultural extension officers), rural communities face challenges that are often unknown to the relevant authorities that would provide support. Having several integrated/interdepartmental rural based offices with staff deployed on a daily basis to attend to the needs of the communities, including providing information and other government services, would be valuable.

Joint ventures for farmers

Further support includes encouraging and supporting joint ventures for black farmers with their strategic business partners. This would entail legal assistance to black poor farmers to ensure their risks in the partnership agreements are managed and beneficiation is equitable.

Generally, there could be other ways of improving existing initiatives and resources to better address the needs of the poor black communities in South Africa. An integrated approach which seeks to address these challenges will make some progress in achieving development goals using water as an input.

Written by Admin on 10 July 2017