South Africa

South Africa built 18 large dams between 1964 and 1994 – but only two since democracy

Between 1964 and 1994, the government constructed 18 new dams that can store over 200 million cubic meters of water. Between 1994 and 2023, it only built two such dams in South Africa.

Over the last 25 years, South Africa has only built one dam with over 200 million cubic meters of capacity. Since 2014, it has not built any large dams.

Although water capacity in dams is only one of the problems behind South Africa’s water crisis, it is a significant hurdle to overcome.

South Africa’s water problems have reached such severe levels that Water and Sanitation Minister Senzo Mchunu is promoting water-shifting.

Water-shifting is akin to load-shedding, but the flow of water molecules in pipes is restricted instead of the electricity supply over transmission lines being disrupted.

While deteriorating infrastructure, pollution, and failing municipalities are a concern, the shortage of enough water is an equally big challenge.

Most of South Africa’s economic hubs are in areas where water does not naturally flow in abundance.

Population growth and water scarcity, particularly strenuous during drought, strain water resources and water supply infrastructure.

The impact of droughts on water supply was seen in Cape Town when three consecutive years of dry winters forced the city into a crisis.

Cape Town imposed severe water restrictions with real concerns that taps could run dry. Although it narrowly avoided this catastrophe, the crisis showed how vulnerable the city’s water supply is.

If South Africa wants to avoid regular water restrictions to manage a lack of supply, it needs to invest in new dams.

South Africa has a rapidly growing population that requires more water. StatsSA’s 2022 census revealed that the population increased from 41 million to 62 million over the last 26 years.

Households with access to piped water increased from 44% in 1996 to 60% in 2022, which illustrates the increased water demand.

However, between 1996 and 2022, South Africa only constructed two dams with a capacity of over 200 million cubic meters.

The government has not constructed any mega-dams with over 1 billion cubic meters capacity in the last 25 years.

Put another way, between 1964 and 1993, the government added 22 million megalitre of dam capacity. Between 1994 and 2023, the ANC government has only added 1.7 million megalitres.

The charts below show the construction of large dams in South Africa over the last 60 years – between 1964 and 1994 and between 1994 and 2023.


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