Innovation opportunities in irrigation technology for using virtual water in 21st century South Africa: reflections from the past to the present.

13 January 2012

• Summary: In 21st century South Africa, new and old technological innovations in agriculture can be employed to protect existing and future water supplies that are increasingly becoming vulnerable to encroaching global warming trends. The purpose of this article is to identify irrigation technology, the impact on irrigative farming of a polluted water environment through mining and other baneful industrial activities in the Republic. It also aims to discuss innovation opportunities in irrigation technology for using virtual water – a concept commonly associated with the Middle East. South Africa possesses arguably the most sophisticated engineering technology in irrigation in southern Africa. In this article, reflections on irrigation from the past to the present will be complemented by a historical focus of the context in which this farming enterprise evolved. A brief historical synopsis of irrigation shows that this activity which became more technologically advanced in the colonial and post-independence eras was also practiced in the pre-colonial period for food security and as an insurance against drought. Irrigation was practised in South Africa before and after the colonisation of the Cape by the Dutch in 1652. Irrigation technology in the seventeenth century tended to lack the sophistication and modernisation of the contemporary world. Innovative improvements became imperative as the state increasingly became more involved in agriculture from the 1920s and 1930s largely as part of a process leading to the evolution of settler irrigation policy which was premised on capital accumulation and the deprivation of Africans of land ownership rights. This policy orientation clearly changed from the advent of independence to the 21st century in favour of a policy that aimed at economically empowering the Black smallholder sector farmers without necessarily neglecting the largescale commercial producers. Irrigation farming is not a novel phenomenon to the region. Since the turn of the new millennium, technological innovation has been prioritised because South Africa is situated in a predominantly hot arid zone of the sub-region. Total evaporation creates endemic water shortages. It is therefore imperative that water resources are well managed in a country which thrives largely on mining, industrial and agricultural pursuits. Due to South Africa’s geophysical location in one of the world’s arid terrains, irrigation has been identified as an essential corollary to dry land farming and other economic endeavours. Nevertheless, in spite of advances that have been made in centre-pivot manufacturing, South Africa has generally tended to ignore cheaper irrigation methodologies such as the drip, terracing and flood systems which seem more suitable and appropriate in arid conditions. It has also ignored the fact that using large volumes of both riparian and imported water from Lesotho to irrigate a crop like maize in the Eastern Free State Province, for example, is not only unviable but it is also unsustainable. A major rethink of how food supply can be boosted on the basis of irrigated agriculture, utilising more advanced and peculiarly suitable technology in hot and arid or water deficient areas is vital. This is more so because industrial demand for water – a large quantity of which is expensively procured or transferred from Lesotho through the Vaal River system - is in direct competition with the demand for water to produce surplus food under irrigation. Most industrial and farming activities in Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga provinces, to name a few, are dependent on this water which is under threat of depletion. Given South Africa’s arid conditions, the adoption of the virtual water concept, following the Saudi Arabian experience, would be a possible conservationist measure. This article also argues that because water is limited, mining and air pollution which eventually ends up in the water should be controlled to ensure safe drinking and irrigation water.