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Year: 2005 Revision date: -- Revision type: --

Regional report: Water Report 29, 2005

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(Click the map to obtain a detailed map)

Geography, climate and population

The Kingdom of Swaziland is located in southeastern Africa. It is a landlocked country bordered by Mozambique to the east and the Republic of South Africa on all other sides. It has a total area of 17 360 km2. The country is mostly mountainous and hilly, with some moderate sloping plains.

For administrative purposes the country is divided into four districts, each of which is administered by a Regional Administrator:

  • Hhohho in the north, with its administrative headquarters in Mbabane;
  • Manzini in the centre, with headquarters in Manzini;
  • Shiselweni in the south, with headquarters in Nhlangano;
  • Lubombo in the east, with headquarters in Siteki.

Two major systems of land tenure exist in Swaziland. Title Deed Land (TDL) is privately owned land and is used mainly for ranching, forestry or estate production of crops such as sugar cane, citrus and pineapples. It covers 46 percent of the country. Swazi Nation Land (SNL), which is land held in trust by the King for the Swazi people, covers the remaining 54 percent of the country.

The country is divided into four agro-ecological zones, based on elevation, landforms, geology, soils and vegetation. The Highveld, Middleveld and Lowveld occupy about one-third of the country each, while the Lubombo Plateau occupies less than one-tenth of the country.

Swaziland has a subtropical climate with summer rains. About 75 percent of the precipitation falls from October to March. The climatic conditions range from sub-humid and temperate in the Highveld to semi-arid in the Lowveld. The national long-term average rainfall is 788 mm/year. Table 1 gives the rainfall for the different ecological zones.

The country’s population was about 1.1 million in 2004, of which 76 percent are rural (Table 2). The population density is 62 inhabitants/km2. About 52 percent of the population is female, while 48 percent are males. The annual population growth was estimated at 2.9 percent in 1998 and had declined to 1.9 percent in 2002. One reason for the decline is the impact of HIV/AIDS that has led to high mortality.

Clean water supply coverage, in the form of taps in houses, taps outside houses, community taps and boreholes, is 42 percent for the rural population and 87 percent for the urban population (Table 2). Rivers and unprotected wells are the main source of household water for people in the countryside with 67 percent of the rural population relying on them.

Economy, agriculture and food security

Since 1990, economic growth has failed to match population increase. During the second half of the 1980s, Swaziland achieved a remarkably high level of annual economic growth ranging from 7 to 10 percent. During the 1990s, economic growth slowed down to about 1 percent. In 1998 real annual economic growth slackened to 0.1 percent, and the gross domestic product increased by 1.7 percent. The slowdown in economic activities in the late 1990s was due mainly to low agricultural production, low international commodity prices, weak demand and a generally depressed world economic environment.

The GDP of the country (current US$) was US$1.8 billion in 2003 with agriculture contributing about 11.3 percent. This contribution has been fluctuating over the past 10 years owing to unreliable rainfall leading to poor harvests.

The cultivated area is estimated at 190 000 ha, of which 178 000 ha of arable land and 12 000 ha under permanent crops. Maize is the most important crop in Swazi Nation Land (SNL); however there has been an increase in the number of farmers on SNL growing sugar cane, especially those with irrigation facilities. The major factor contributing to the shift is the profitability of sugar cane cultivation. The price of maize has always been regulated by government and so does not entirely reflect market conditions. As a result, a secondary market has emerged quoting substantially high prices, especially in areas affected by drought. Swaziland has never been self-sufficient in maize production; the shortfall to cover consumption needs has always been satisfied by commercial imports and food aid. Table 3 shows the maize production and imports for the seasons from 1987/88 to 1997/98.

Water resources

The four main river systems in the country are:

  • The Komati and Lomati systems, in the north of the country, both originate in South Africa and flow out of Swaziland back into South Africa, before entering Mozambique;
  • The Mbuluzi River rises in Swaziland and flows into Mozambique;
  • The Usuthu River, together with a number of major tributaries, originates in South Africa and flows out into Mozambique, forming the border between Mozambique and South Africa;
  • The Ngwavuma, in the south of the country, rises in Swaziland and flows into South Africa before entering Mozambique.

The fifth river system contributing to the surface water resources of Swaziland is the Pongola River, which is found in South Africa, south of Swaziland. The Jozini dam, built on the South African side, floods some land on the Swaziland side and the water is available for use in Swaziland.

The total renewable water resources of the country are 4.51 km3/year, with 1.87 km3/year or 42 percent originating from South Africa (Table 4). A quantitative assessment of groundwater resources of the country has not been undertaken. It is estimated that the groundwater resource potential is about 21 m3/s countrywide, which is equal to 0.66 km3/year, while the bulk of the groundwater resources occurs in the Highveld and Middleveld regions. With the exception of the post-Karoo igneous intrusive formation and the recent thin alluvia along the major river valleys, the strongly consolidated rocks of the Archean Basement Complex and the Karoo system underlie practically all of Swaziland and limit the groundwater development potential of the country.

There are nine major dams with a height of more than 10 metres and with a total storage capacity of about 585 million m3. Seven are used for irrigation purposes, one for hydroelectric purposes and one for water supply (Table 5).

International water issues

In order to facilitate the development of water resources of common interest, in 1992 the governments of Swaziland and South Africa signed a treaty for the establishment and functioning of the Joint Water Commission. In addition to any other functions or powers conferred on the Commission, it advises the two countries on all technical matters relating to the following:

  • The criteria to be adopted in the allocation of the utilizable portion of water resources of common interest between the two countries;
  • The investigations for the development of water resources of common interest by the two countries, including the construction, operation and maintenance of any water works;
  • The prevention of, and exercise of control over, the pollution of water resources of common interest.

Another international body is the Komati Basin Water Authority (KOBWA), which is a bilateral company formed in 1993 under the Treaty on the Development and Utilization of the Water Resources of the Komati River Basin, 1992, entered between the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. Its purpose is to implement Phase 1 of the Komati River Basin Development Project comprising the design, construction and maintenance of Driekoppes Dam in South Africa and the Maguga Dam in Swaziland. Both the Treaty of the Establishment and Functioning of the Joint Water Commission and the Treaty on the Development and Utilization of the Water Resources of the Komati River Basin recognize the rights of Mozambique to a reasonable and equitable share of the water resources of shared rivers.

A Tripartite Technical Committee (TCTP), established under the Tripartite Agreements between Swaziland, South Africa and Mozambique, is responsible inter alia for the identification and prioritization of capacity-building challenges and opportunities in the water sectors of the three parties and the establishment of regime allocations.

The member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed a protocol on shared watercourses (Protocol on Shared Watercourses in SADC, 2000). The overall objectives of the protocol are to foster closer cooperation for judicious, sustainable and coordinated management, protection and utilization of shared watercourses and to advance the SADC agenda of regional integration and poverty alleviation. In order to achieve this objective, the Protocol seeks to:

  • Promote and facilitate the establishment of shared watercourse agreements and shared watercourse institutions for the management of shared watercourses;
  • Advance the sustainable, equitable and reasonable utilization of shared watercourses;
  • Promote a coordinated, integrated and environmentally sound development and management of shared watercourses;
  • Promote the harmonization and monitoring of legislation and policies for planning, development, conservation, protection of shared watercourses, and allocation of the resources;
  • Promote research and technology development, information exchange, capacity building, and the application of appropriate technologies in shared watercourses management.

Water use

Total water withdrawal for agricultural, municipal and industrial purposes is estimated at just over 1 km3. Over 95 percent of the water resources in the country are used for irrigation (Table 6, Table 7 and Figure 1).

Irrigation and drainage

Evolution of irrigation development

The irrigation potential for the country, based on the physical land capability and water availability, is estimated at 93 220 ha. In 2000, 49 843 ha of the land is under irrigation, with over 40 000 ha being used for irrigated sugar cane (Table 8). Over 84 percent of the irrigated land is found in the Lowveld, with about 15 percent in the Middleveld.

About 10 large irrigation schemes (> 500 ha) occupy 67 percent of the irrigated land (Figure 2). Medium irrigation schemes (50 500 ha) and small irrigation schemes (< 50 ha) occupy 20 percent and 13 percent of the land respectively. Large schemes are dominant in TDL, while small schemes are dominant in SNL. In the latter, there are several micro-irrigation schemes which are communal projects funded by several NGOs and IFAD through the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. These schemes occupy about 1 500 ha of land scattered around the country.

About 52 percent of the land is under surface irrigation, followed by overhead irrigation (drag lines, fixed sprinklers, centre pivots, etc.) on 42 percent of the area. The remaining 6 percent of the area is under localized irrigation (Table 8 and Figure 3).

Role of irrigation in agricultural production, the economy and society

Sugar cane is by far the dominant irrigated crop in the country, covering over 91 percent of the harvested irrigated cropped area (Table 8 and Figure 4). Next comes citrus, covering almost 6 percent. Smaller areas are covered by vegetables, maize, potatoes, rice and bananas. Table 9 shows areas, harvests and yields of sugar cane over several years.

The sugar industry, which is the main irrigation industry in the country, provides direct employment to about 16 000 people, and about 20 000 people benefit from the industry indirectly. The sugar estates provide free or heavily subsidized medical facilities, housing, electricity and water to employers.

Several irrigation and water resources development programmes exist in the country. Some of the projects are highlighted in Table 10.

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


The Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE) is responsible for assessment, monitoring, management and allocation of water resources in the country. It has several branches responsible for specific activities. The Water Resource Branch (WRB) is responsible for stream flow observation, planning of water resources and control of pollution, while the Rural Water Supply Branch is responsible for water supply and sanitation in rural areas. The Groundwater Unit of the Geological Surveys and Mines Branch is responsible for drilling boreholes and monitoring the withdrawal of underground water. The Swaziland Water Service Corporation, a parastatal organization, is responsible for urban and peri-urban water supply and sanitation. The Swaziland Environment Authority (SEA) is responsible for pollution control and allocation of compliance certificates after proponents of development projects have submitted environmental impact assessment reports and comprehensive mitigation plans. The Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives constructs small earth dams and assists farmers with the utilization of water resources.

Policies and legislation

Swaziland does not have a clear policy on water use and management. The overall management of water resources is on an ad hoc basis through several uncoordinated pieces of legislation, spread among a number of Ministries as well as other institutions outside the government, that are aimed at solving specific issues without due consideration of harmonization. These Acts include the Protection of Freshwater Fish Act of 1938, the Swaziland Electricity Act of 1963, the Water Act of 1967, the Water Services Act of 1992, the Komati River Basin Water Resources Development and Utilization Act of 1992, the Joint Water Commission Act of 1992, the Swaziland Environmental Authority Act of 1992, the Swaziland Administrative Order of 1998 and the Borehole Act of the Geological Surveys and Mines, to name a few.

At present, landowners with title deeds on riparian lands are entitled, by virtue of the deed, to abstract water from the stream flowing alongside or within their properties as well as underground water. The Water Act of 1967 (Swaziland Government, 1967) is the main legislation that regulates the apportioning and use of water but it only applies to title deed land and thus excludes all communal land, which constitutes 54 percent of total land in Swaziland.

The Swaziland Environmental Authority Act (Swaziland Government, 1992) addresses the issues of water for the environment and pollution control. The Act includes provisions for the establishment of standards and guidelines related to the pollution of air, water and land, as well as for the control of all forms of environmental pollution including that caused by the discharge of toxic wastes into the air, water and land.

The Swaziland Administration Order of 1998 empowers the Ngwenyama (King in Council) to issue orders to be followed in Swazi Nation Land and can be used as a tool for managing water resources in communal land. Among other things, these orders require:

  • the prevention of any pollution of the water in, or injury to, any dam, stream, watercourse, waterhole, well, borehole, or other water supplies and to prevent the obstruction of any stream or watercourse for the construction, improvement or maintenance of communal water supplies;
  • measures to be taken to secure proper housing and sanitation;
  • regulation of the provision, maintenance and use of communal water supplies.

The National Development Strategy (NDS) intends to formulate a Vision and Mission Statement with appropriate strategies for socio-economic development for the next 25 years and to provide a guide for the formulation of development plans and for the equitable allocation of resources. It is designed to strengthen the Government’s development planning and management capacities and to have a national consensus on the direction of future developments in the country. The NDS addresses the issue of water resources development and gives several recommendations (National Development Strategy, 1999). It advocates the development of an overall policy to cover all water uses, the expansion of smallholder irrigation within a national irrigation development plan whilst encouraging farmers to utilize all available water catchments, and planning and constructing small to medium size dams to provide a reliable source of water for small-scale irrigation, livestock, fisheries and municipal use.

Environment and health

Sanitation coverage is poor in Swaziland, as an estimated 59 percent of the rural population has pit latrines and only 33 percent has access to a clean water supply. The high rate of infant mortality in the country is attributed to diarrhoea, malnutrition and infectious diseases, which can be linked to the lack of a potable water supply and sanitary facilities and to poor hygiene.

The highest risk of bilharzia infection is in the Middleveld and Lubombo plateau where rivers flow slowly and stagnant pools form. The high temperatures and the lack of alternative water supply sources mean that people use the rivers and streams for swimming, washing and drinking. Domestic animals use the same water and contaminate it, increasing the risk of transmitting infections to humans. No study to establish the full extent of the problem of bilharzia has been undertaken. However it was estimated in 1990 that the infected population may be as high as 20 percent of the population of the Middleveld and the Lubombo plateau.

Malaria remains a major health problem in the country. The disease is seasonal and unstable, occurring mainly during or after the rainy season. Malaria is prevalent in the Lowveld, Lubombo Plateau and some parts of the Middleveld. It is estimated that 30 percent of the population resides in malaria risk areas, 38 percent in malaria receptive areas and 32 percent in non-malaria areas.

Prospects for agricultural water management

The irrigation potential of Swaziland is being increased by construction of small and large dams. The construction of the Maguga dam along the Komati river and the Lower Usuthu Smallholder Irrigation Scheme will lead to the development of a total of 17 500 ha for irrigation within the next 5 years.

The existing policy framework in the country is fundamentally flawed and not conducive to the management of water resources. In an attempt to improve the policy framework the MNRE tabled the Water Bill of 2001 in parliament, to replace the Water Act of 1967 as well as to consolidate the pieces of legislation found in different acts and orders. The bill was approved by parliament in 2002, and received the King’s assent in April 2003. The new Water Act seeks to streamline the water allocation process, and to increase the role played by water users in the use and management of water resources. It also calls for the establishment of a National Water Authority (NWA), River Basin Authorities and Water User Associations, which will help in enhancing public involvement in water resources management, and also includes the private sector as a partner in water development. A draft irrigation policy is at present under preparation, with the assistance of FAO.

Main sources of information

Black and Veatch Africa. 2001. Ubombo Sugar Limited Five year Strategic Development Plan (1999-2004). Black and Veatch Africa, Braamfontein.

Department of the Army, US Corps of Engineers. 1981. Swaziland: Water and related land resources framework plan.

FAO. 1994. Present land use map of Swaziland, scale 1:250 000. Field document of UNDP/FAO project SWA/89/001.

FAO. 1994. Water resources and irrigation. Project SWA/89/001.

Knight Piesold Consulting Engineers. 1997. Swaziland water sector situation report. Knight Piesold Consulting Engineers, Mbabane.

Manyatsi A.M. 2002. Sugar cane irrigation scheme downstream of Mnjoli dam. IUCN, Harare.

Mwendera, E.J., Manyatsi, A.M., Magwenzi, O., Dhlamini, S.M. 2002. Water demand management programme for Southern Africa, Country Report for Swaziland. IUCN Southern Africa Country Office, Pretoria.

Swaziland Cane Growers Profile. 2002. Swaziland Cane Growers Profile Electronic Database. Swaziland Cane Growers’ Association, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1938. The Protection of Fresh Water Act, 1938, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1963. The Establishment of the Swaziland Electricity Board Act, 1963.

Swaziland Government. 1967. The Water Act, 1967, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1992a. The Swaziland Environmental Authority Act, 1992, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1992b. The Water Services Act, 1992.

Swaziland Government. 1997. Report on the 1997 Swaziland population and housing census. Central Statistics Office, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1998a. Annual Statistical Bulletin. Central Statistics Office, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1998b. Swaziland Annual Agriculture Survey. Central Statistics Office, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1998c. The Swaziland Administration Order of 1998. Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1999a. Development Plan 1999/00 - 2001/02. Ministry of Economic Planning and Development, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 1999b. The National Development Strategy. Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 2001. Draft National Water Policy. Water Resources Branch of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy, Mbabane.

Swaziland Government. 2001. The Water Bill. Attorney General, Mbabane.

Swaziland Sugar Association. 2002. Swaziland Sugar Association Annual Report 2002. Swaziland Sugar Association, Mbabane.

Swaziland Water Sector Committee. 2001. Water Bill 2001 Issues Paper. Swaziland Water Sector Committee, Mbabane.

Swaziland Water Services Corporation. 2000. Swaziland Water Services Corporation Annual Report. Swaziland Water Services Corporation, Mbabane.

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