SPECIAL REPORT: SA’s bitter water wars brew
Desperate neighbours in Klein Karoo battle it out as small farmers claim larger farms are stealing their water
A bitter water feud is brewing between farmers in one of the country’s worst drought-affected regions.
The sleepy Klein Karoo town of Ladismith, in the Western Cape, is the epicentre of the war that has pitted neighbours against each other.
Central to the battle, which has seen small-scale farmers allegedly being forced to abandon their land, are water usage rights.
The four-year fight, which in December came to a head following the provincial water affairs and environmental department’s raids on commercial farmers’ land, is being waged over large-scale farmers allegedly expanding their dams’ carrying capacity illegally and without state permission.
The expansion of 13 dams, built in the foothills of Swartberg, has seen commercial farmers being accused of stealing water meant for smaller farmers, who farm in the valleys below Ladismith, to fill their dams.
Alerted by whistleblowers, Western Cape water affairs department officers raided five farms where the dams are built and ordered all operations and future construction to be halted. Environmental impact assessments are currently under way.
An environmental assessor has so far discovered that several dams do not meet engineering safety standards, with some holding nearly 1,000% more water than what the farmers are licensed to carry in their dams.
“We are at our wits’ end. We have had to sell off everything that we have, including our animals. We are facing foreclosure. We are in so much debt we have no choice but to abandon our beautiful farm,” said lucerne farmer Natalya Nisbet.
She and her partner Gavin Visser have invested their life savings into their farm, which they bought in November 2014.
Acknowledging the effect of the country’s worst drought on their operations, Nisbet said the actions of neighbouring farmers, by expanding dams and allegedly syphoning off more water from rivers than their water usage rights allow, have exacerbated the drought’s onslaught.
While Ladismith’s average annual rainfall is 350mm, in the last two years less than 420mm has fallen.
“It’s a difficult situation. We don’t want issues with neighbours, but people must understand that just because they are commercial farmers it does not mean their rights trump ours.
“There are farmers here, neighbours, who simply don’t care about their actions. They go and build dams and continuously fill them up. When we moved here there was lush vegetation, with streams and rivers flowing through our farm.
“The drought came and things were tough, but there was still some water flowing from the streams.”
She said the streams, which are fed by a canal system connected to the Dwars, Groot and Klein Swartberg rivers, completely dried up in 2015 and 2016.
“Although we have had some rains since then, there was no water coming down the streams or canals. Even when we had reasonable rain in 2018, there was nothing.”
Nisbet said while they knew their neighbour Johan van der Vyver had been building dams since 2016, they didn’t know what the extent of their effect on the rivers would be until last year’s rains.
“There is absolutely nothing. He has several massive dams which are constantly full. The rivers above his farm flow, but below the dams there is nothing.
“Van der Vyver is not the only big farmer building dams in the area. There are many who have built dams with the rivers running straight into them.”
She said although maybe unintentionally, the commercial farmers’ actions were forcing people off their land.
“There are at least 25 farmers who are affected by these dams.”
Former dairy and lucerne farmer Sonja Claassen said while some farmers looked as if they were living in paradise with green fields, “others, like us, look like we are living in a desert”.
“We used to get water from the Laingsburg dam and the nearby rivers, but they have dried up. Because of what’s happening, with the rivers no longer flowing, we have had to shut our dairy, which was our only source of income.”
She said they prayed the water affairs investigation would bring them some form of relief.
“The drought was killing us, but with this issue, we are truly desperate. We don’t know how long we can hold out for.”
Environmental assessment practitioner Desireé du Preez, who is investigating the dams on Van der Vyver’s property, confirmed the construction and extension on some of his dams were done without the necessary government approval.
“The farm is licensed to store 15,000m³ in total in its dams. The capacity of the current dam is 142,000m³ when full.
“Some of the dams do not have the necessary engineering safety sign-offs.”
She said pending her report on the environmental impact of the dams, it was too early to say if farmers downstream from Van der Vyver were negatively affected.
“We have yet to establish if he is pumping more than his allotted water into the dams.
“There are a number of studies that still need to be conducted, including a flood line and freshwater assessment, with a public participation process scheduled for March. Only once this is complete will we know if there are serious effects on others.”
Van der Vyver laughed at the accusations.
“We are using what we are allowed to. Those farming closer to the mountain have first rights to the water. The dams were built at our own cost, to hold the water that we are allowed to draw.
“The people moaning are not like us forward-thinking farmers. We built dams because we knew droughts would come.
“Those who are moaning are moaning because they can’t hear the frogs at night, not because they don’t have water.”
He said he had done nothing wrong with his dams.
“I improved the walls, that is all. I haven’t diverted or stopped the river. If I can’t have my dams, I will have to retrench 80 people. That’s 80 families are without a breadwinner.”
Matthys Swart, who built dams on his farm, said the allegations were nonsense.
“Yes I built dams, but they are empty. I have not stolen anyone’s water. The water I take from the rivers when they flow is my allotted amount. Nothing more.
“I now have to do these assessments, and for what? My dams are properly built with the necessary safety standards. My father is a dam engineer and has built dams for over 20 years. He knows what he is doing and won’t jeopardise people or the environment by building dodgy dams.”
He said the issue was over the lack of water in the area, “which is because we are having the worst drought in 200 years”.
“Everyone is suffering, but some are trying to say they are suffering more than others. The dams were built precisely to address future water shortages. Those who are moaning are not proper farmers. They are Joburg businessmen complaining because their grass is dying and their holiday homes are suffering.
“If they were proper farmers they would have built dams. The dams create job security. Those suffering the most are the 1,000 seasonal workers who are out of work because of the drought.
“What are these moaners doing to employ people? Nothing.”
Rudolf van Jaarsveldt, Western Cape environmental affairs department spokesperson, confirmed a “blitz operation” was conducted on five farms with the department after complaints about the alleged illegal construction of dams and abstraction of water were received.
He said administrative notices were issued to several farmers after evidence “relating to the illegal construction of dams and activities within a watercourse emerged”.
“The department has instructed the alleged offenders to cease the illegal activities, including the construction of dams, and make representations as to why more stringent law enforcement action should not be taken.”
He said it was not known whether such activities were occurring elsewhere in the province.