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How protecting our mountain ranges can help during a water crisis

A stream of water runs pass a spot in the Drakensberg mountain range near the Sani Pass in KwaZulu-Natal. Image: Jehran Naidoo/Independent Media

A stream of water runs pass a spot in the Drakensberg mountain range near the Sani Pass in KwaZulu-Natal. Image: Jehran Naidoo/Independent Media

Published Jul 6, 2022

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Durban - International and domestic environmental researchers have highlighted the need to protect and better understand mountain ranges across the Southern African region, as they play a key role in supplying water.

With the effects of climate change being felt, Professor Francois Engelbrecht from the University of the Witwatersrand and Dr James Thornton of GEO Mountains said understanding the changes occurring in mountains is vital.

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With the City of Gqebera facing a possible threat of ‘day zero’ - where taps run dry, Thornton and Engelbrecht unravel how the Drakensberg mountains can help prevent Gauteng from possibly reaching ‘day-zero’.

Engelbrecht was the keynote speaker at the Southern African Mountain Conference 2022 in the Drakensberg earlier this year, during which he said: “I don’t think South Africa is prepared for the possibility of a Gauteng Day Zero drought.”

The conference was also endorsed by the Afromontane Research Institute at the University of Free State.

It was held to discuss monitoring activities and associated data availability for climate change-related applications across Africa’s mountains.

During the drought of 2015/2016, Engelbrecht said Gauteng came very close to a day zero as the Vaal Dam dropped to 25% capacity.

While the Vaal Dam plays a notable role in supplying water to Gauteng, a little more than 50% of the water in Gauteng is from the Drakensberg, according to the Water Research Commission.

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A waterfall and stream running parallel to the Drakensberg mountain range in Sani Pass. Image: Jehran Naidoo/Independent Media.

Mountains act like water towers, sucking up moisture into cooler air at high altitudes so that vapour held in the air condenses into water.

“The mountains are crucial for this due to the orographic enhancement of precipitation,” said Thornton.

Furthermore, research has indicated that the demand for water will exceed supply by 2025 if nothing is done to supplement current water resources.

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In a paper he co-authored, Engelbrecht wrote: “Except for the Southern Cape, the Drakensberg is the single most important source of water in Southern Africa and supplies regions where the bulk of the population resides.”

“Multiyear El Nino-type droughts may plausibly occur from the mid-century (2030-2060) onwards,” Engelbrecht predicted.

In light of this, Thornton has called for better monitoring of these mountains.

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Research about mountains can be uploaded to a data portal created by the South African Environmental Observation Network or SAEON. This includes research from the African continent as a whole, and not just SA.

Thornton said we need to: “Monitor and track these changes, to understand the biophysical processes and their interaction with society, and to be able to better estimate the chance, for instance, of future extreme droughts on a more local scale so we can develop measures for mitigation and adaptation.”

“We’re trying to make it straightforward for researchers on the ground to make their datasets available to anybody if they choose to do so,” said Thornton.

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