As thousands of hectares along South Africa’s eastern seaboard are converted from sugarcane fields to macadamia nut orchards, applications for water use licences are on the increase.

Farmers are having to apply for environmental authorisation and water use licences to guarantee their water storage facilities for irrigation purposes, comply with the National Environmental Management Act (Act 107 of 1998), and the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998).

According to the South African Macadamia Growers’ Association a hectare of mature macadamia trees, from about seven years and older, requires about 9 500m3 of water a year or between 40 and 120 litres of water for a tree a day and between 13 000 and 37 000 litres per hectare per day, depending on the cultivar and the time of the year.

Water demand increases in August and September when most of the cultivars flower and the macadamia nuts set.

Steven Whitaker from the environmental services consulting company EnviroEdge, says the number of applications for the requisite environmental authorisation, and for water use licences in the macadamia industry have climbed since 2015. 

“In particular we have seen applications increase on the KwaZulu-Natal north coast and at the moment we are working on four new applications. This is a fairly new agricultural shift here in KwaZulu-Natal and it is increasing. Most of the growers will use either drip irrigation or micro jets with modular moisture measurement applications.”

Whitaker said the applications were mainly sugarcane growers who were replacing their cane fields with macadamia nut orchards and the need for the Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA), for most of the farmers, was generally to increase the size of existing water storage facilities or to create new dams.

“The need for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for water storage facilities is owing to triggered listed activities under Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations 2014, (as amended 2017), under the National Environmental Management Act. Depending on the nature and scale of the development the water storage facility may require either a Basic Assessment or a full Environmental Impact Assessment.

Whitaker said the main “triggered listed activities” included the development of dams or weirs, where the dam or weir, including infrastructure and water surface area, exceeded 100 square metres or infrastructure or structures with a physical footprint of 100 square metres or more.

Further according to the legislation if such a development happened in a watercourse, in front of a development setback or, if no setback existed, within 32m of a watercourse, measured from the edge of that watercourse and included the infilling or depositing of any material of more than 10 cubic metres into, or the dredging, excavation, removal or moving of soil, sand, shells, shell grit, pebbles or rock of more than 10 cubic metres from a watercourse or the expansion of infrastructure or structures where the physical footprint is expanded by 100 square metres or more; or dams or weirs, where the dam or weir, including infrastructure and water surface area, is expanded by 100 square metres or more and if and where such expansion occurred within a watercourse, in front of a development setback or, further, if no development setback existed, within 32 metres of a watercourse, measured from the edge of a watercourse and then if then development of a dam where the highest part of the dam wall, as measured from the outside toe of the wall to the highest part of the wall is 5 metres or higher, or where the high-water mark of the dam covers an area of 10 hectares or more, the “triggered listed activities” legislation becomes an obligation.

“For a new dam for example, if the surface area of the water is greater than 100m2, or if an existing dam wall needs to be heightened and the water surface area is increased by 100m2, then a Basic Assessment is required. If a dam is proposed with a dam wall height of greater than 5m or with a surface area of greater than 10 hectares a full EIA is required,” Whitaker said.

EnviroEdge is currently working with a full suite of specialist engineers and scientists for the necessary specialist studies, and Whitaker says his work has meant getting involved with the macadamia nut orchard conversions from the ground up.

“Our point of departure on these projects is to carry out desktop and field investigations, and then specialist team will determine the required specifications of the dam with the aid of reservoir simulation.  This assessment also gives us clarity on what type of EIA the dam will need. Once that is done the existing or proposed storage dam can be classified as a level 1, 2 or 3 by the Department of Water and Sanitation.” 

If the process runs smoothly Whitaker said it should take no longer than 12 to 13 months.

Throughout the Basic Assessment, or EIA there are the mandatory commentary periods. This assessment identifies anticipated impacts and how to apply mitigation measures.

A Basic Assessment, Whitaker said, costs about R80 000.

Also during the Basic Assessment or EIA process, the competent authorities may require specialist studies such as geotechnical studies, wetland assessment, terrestrial and aquatic ecological assessment. 

“I always suggest to farmers not to focus on only one specific or preferred option because once the EIA process gets underway the experts might find that the site for the dam is not ideal. It is an integral part of the EIA process that feasible alternatives must be assessed. That means any reports must consider alternative options. Any dam has to be approved after considering all biophysical, economic and social impacts, and to comply with the objectives of sustainable development.  It is really important to understand that the EIA is a process and for it to be effective it must be allowed to run its course,” he said.

If there were significant impacts associated with the development of the dam, Whitaker said these should firstly be avoided if possible. And if these impacts were impossible to avoid then mitigation plans had to be developed and implemented.

“For example if there are fish species that will be impacted by the proposed dam wall as an obstacle, then the project application must respond to this issue and illustrate how it will be mitigated, through the inclusion of a fish ladder for migration purposes, or to alternatively look at another site, if it is not possible to mitigate effectively.”

The engineer or hydrologist Whitaker said would also assess whether or not the water in the upper catchment of the dam would be sufficient. If not, supplementary water supply would need to be considered. Once the overall design is complete the integrated water use licence process can commence. This usually runs in parallel with the EIA, he said.

The need for a Water Use Licence is owing to activities listed under Section 21 of the National Water Act, namely taking water from water resources, storing water, impeding and diverting the flow of water in a watercourse and altering the bed, banks, course or characteristics of a watercourse.

The water use licence, Whitaker said was backed by a comprehensive piece of legislation that required extensive detail on the need for a dam whether or not there were Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment benefits as well as detail on possible benefits for any neighbouring rural communities.

The entire dam process is subject to the issuing of a Water Use Licence, and an Environmental authorisation, thus the specific requirements of the two adjudicating authorities must be met, he said.

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