Environment Watch

Monitoring must improve for water security


South Africa urgently needs to review and improve its climate monitoring abilities if it is to prepare for or head off the type of water crisis with which the Western Cape is still battling.

Unfortunately, the value of water and data is only appreciated when in a crisis. The serious water crisis in the Western Cape could therefore be a wake-up call, calling for improved monitoring for efficient water management.

The value of proactive planning measures far exceeds any emergency measures after the fact.

But, how well can we prepare, or plan, if the reliable rainfall gauges in South Africa has almost halved from the number that was available in 1920?!

South Africans are still cleaning up, and coming to terms with the recent Western Cape catastrophic drought, winds, and fires.

Unfortunately, extreme droughts and storms could only be the ears of the hippo of the impact of predicted change in climate. 

The expectation is that Climate Change will greatly increase climate variability, resulting in changes in historical patterns with localised impacts varying from one catchment to the next.

Monitoring impacts and trends in historical climate data such as rainfall and temperature are essential to improve our understanding of these changes. Satellite observations, observed data and forecast models to monitor and forecast changes in the weather and climate are integral to a monitoring system of climate change.

Long observed historical observed records is created over time, to enable statistical analysis and the identification of mean values, trends and variations. Improved information increases understanding of climate and better modelling results at local, regional, national, and global level.

Importance of reliable data

The USA is pro-actively protecting themselves through increased and improved monitoring of climate variables such as rainfall, temperature, humidity, and wind to better understand the extent, and location of these impacts.

In contrast, South African water scientists and data users are increasingly warning that lack of central available reliable historical water and other relevant climate and agricultural data will seriously hamper future scientific studies, viz water security.

The degradation in water-related data networks with regards to quality and quantity in South Africa has given rise to strong pleas by scientists and data users to resolve critical data issues.

Issues raised are, amongst others: exorbitant prices for data and information, fragmentation of data, poor spatial distribution, contradictory datasets, poor data, poor data collation and a decline of observing systems.

In June 2016, a dialogue was organized between South Africa and the United States by the Water Research Commission (WRC) to explore the potential establishment of a hydrology data centre as a repository to centralise and improve water related data to improve water security in South Africa.

Invited attendees were government departments, government agencies, professional bodies, and science councils), universities, industry, etc. In his introductory address, the CEO of the WRC, Mr Dhesigen Naidoo stressed the importance of improved water data for protection against two of the greatest global risks, viz. climate change and water,

The Chief Director: Water Ecosystems of the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), Ms Ndileka Mohapi raised her concerns on the deterioration of hydrological data. She ascribed the data problems largely to:

  • structural problems of the government and the Department
  • the loss of skills and expertise.

The most important resolution from the Dialogue was to, as a matter of priority, initiate a research project to develop an inventory of all water-related data resources to aid in the design of the envisaged data centre/water data bank.

The value of data increases with record length, showing short and long-term trends and extremes over extended periods.

Likewise, without long historical rainfall records, hydrological modelling and subsequent extension of streamflow records becomes extremely unreliable.

It is thus a great concern to all data users that more than a year has passed since the Dialogue without any concrete actions to improve the data paucity in South Africa.

Rainfall is the single most important variable that determines the amount of runoff into a catchment and is the most important input into hydrological, agricultural, and meteorological models.

Rainfall monitoring requires little equipment and only a small amount of time: the greatest need is dedication to the activity over the course of a year. 

In 1920 the number of operational and reliable rainfall gauges in South Africa were approximately 1 200 and, after having reached a peak at more than 2 000 in the 1970s, this number has since decreased continuously to around just 700 today! 

(Hennie Wiehahn is National Council member of the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut and Chairman of the Industrial and Mining Desk. This article, supplied by the AHI, was slightly edited.)

by Hennie Wiehahn

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