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South Africa

Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture


Two Departments are involved in water management and irrigation development:

  • The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), replacing the Department of Water Affairs (DWA), is the custodian of South Africa's water resources. It is primarily responsible for the formulation and implementation of policy governing this sector. It also has an overriding responsibility for water services provided by local government. While striving to ensure that all South Africans gain access to clean water and safe sanitation, the water sector also promotes effective and efficient water resources management to ensure sustainable economic and social development.
  • The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), through its Directorate of Water and Irrigation Development (DWID) in its Forestry and Natural Resources Management branch is to ensure the efficient development and revitalization of irrigation schemes and water use.

The Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) has no specific branch related to water.

At regional level, the DWS has 9 regional offices, one in each region, implementing the DWS's policy, as well as controlling and monitoring services. To these regional offices correspond 9 WMAs–detailed in the Water Resources section–each managed by a Catchment Management Agency (CMAs) involving local communities. A Water Tribunal was established in 1998 to decide over issues related to water management and actions taken by CMAs.

SANCID is the South African National Committee of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID). The South African Irrigation Institute (SABI) is a national NGO providing irrigation standards and norms.

Most of the research on the various aspects of water use is promoted, funded and coordinated by the Water Research Commission (WRC), whose funds are generated by a levy on water use. Various institutes of the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) are to a greater or lesser degree involved in irrigation-related research, as are some of the universities. Very little irrigation-related research and extension is done by the departments of agriculture. This is offset by one private organization, the South African Sugar Association, which does some irrigation-related research and extension work.

Regarding water supply and sanitation at regional levels, the Water Boards provide water services (bulk potable water and wastewater treatment) in their respective service areas. Water Services Authorities (WSA) are municipalities ensuring that same service within their area of jurisdiction and the Water Services Provider (WSP) is contracted to sell water or treat wastewater (DWA, 2013d).

Water management

Prior to the National Water Act 1998, the management of water resources was mainly demand driven, with emphasis on the development of new water resources (DWA, 2002) and the riparian principle–originating from the English common law, which allocates water of a river to the farmers possessing land along its path up to “reasonable use”–encouraged white landowners to use water to develop their land with irrigated agriculture (RSA, 2013). Since 1998, water is allocated through five entitlements: reserve, scheduled use (household, stock, rainwater harvesting), general authorization, licensed water use, existing lawful use. A water allocation reform targets the last three forms (DAFF, 2012b).

The National Water Act 1998 stipulates water management by Water User Associations (WUAs) at the local level. Each WUA is to include all individual water users in an area and is responsible for the local water management. Previous irrigation boards, private schemes and government water schemes are or were transformed into WUAs. Catchment Management Agencies (CMAs) are responsible for the WUAs in their respective areas. Establishment of WUAs, in particular for smallholders, used a top-down approach contrary to the National Water Act envisaged process, as bottom-up driven by water users (WRC, 2009). Indeed, programmes of revitalization of smallholder irrigation schemes were initiated with the aim to transfer ownership of the schemes to farmers after technical and financial assistance (Ledbawa, 2013).


Ageing water infrastructures, either for water supply or for irrigation, require maintenance and upgrades. Government is the main source of funding for development and rehabilitation of infrastructures with raw water tariffs per volume, varying significantly depending on regions and sources, but recovery rate is low. The raw water pricing strategy was under review in 2015. In irrigation, water is mostly unmeasured and thus uncharged, resulting in underinvestment. In addition, not all irrigators have a water licence yet (OECD, 2013). A water market, enabling irrigators to save and sell excess water, has been initiated.

Policies and legislation

The right to access water is specified in the Constitution of South Africa (RSA, 2013). However, the main legislation is the National Water Act 1998 (Act 36), replacing the previous Water Act 1956 which was based on European laws and thus inappropriate for the country's climate condition and which was racially discriminating for water allocation (DWS, 2014). The 1998 Act requires licensing for water, a public resource, while it was previously considered attached to the land. Finally, it also declared afforestation as a “stream flow reduction activity” due to its impact on the flow of rainwater into streams, and downstream hydrological balance. The Water Services Act 1997 (Act 108) prescribes the duty of municipalities to provide water supply and sanitation according to national standards and norms. Both acts are being reviewed and it is expected that they might be merged into one act only to improve integration of the resources' management (DWA, 2013b). In addition, the National Environmental Management Act 1998 (Act 107) and its amendments of 2003, 2004, 2008 on waste and of 2009 on integrated management complete the legislation in relation with water.

The three main policies related to water, especially for agriculture, are:

  • The National Water Resource Strategy 2004, indicating the water management, including water quality of the national water resources, and the expected water supply and sanitation services. It is underpinned by three fundamental principles: equity, environmental sustainability and efficiency. It was reviewed in 2012 with the Second National Water Resources Strategy (NWRS 2) to operationalize the establishment of CMAs (OECD, 2013), in particular from finances perspectives with framework for water allocation and taxes.
  • The Integrated Water for Growth and Development Framework 2009 for agriculture, forestry and fisheries, guiding water development in order to alleviate poverty through the many activities depending on water supply.
  • The National Groundwater Strategy 2010, intended to make the best use of this resource while protecting it.

In addition, drafts have been produced on specific themes but are still to be finalized and published: a draft national agriculture development strategy, a draft irrigation strategy and a draft irrigation policy framework. The latter is to focus on the revitalization of irrigation. Finally, strategies for non-conventional sources of water have also been detailed: a reuse strategy and a desalination strategy aimed particularly to coastal cities.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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