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Gamtoos farmers pushed to the brink

Despite good rains in the north of South Africa, farmers to the south are grappling with an unprecedented crisis as one of the Eastern Cape’s largest dams, the Kouga Dam, looks set to run dry for the first time ever.

With the dam level dropping below 5%, the Gamtoos Irrigation Board (GIB) has warned water users that it cannot supply water adequately below the 3% water mark. The board oversees the dam’s water distribution.

The dam, which opened in 1969 and last overflowed in 2015, has never dropped below the 6.5% water mark.

Known for its citrus, cash crop, and dairy farming, the Gamtoos River Valley is buckling under a years-long drought, bringing farmers to their knees.

Due to the dwindling water reserves, the 132 agricultural water users who rely on the dam for irrigation have been able to draw just 20% of their annual water quota since last July.

“The lowest release level of the dam is 3.1%,” said Rienette Colesky, CEO of the irrigation board. “We will, however, not be able to sustainably supply water at that level.”

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Colesky said the Nelson Mandela Bay and Kouga municipalities’ drawings from the dam were curbed to just 30% and 70% of their full water allocations, respectively. Both were honouring these restrictions, she said.

“This situation endangers the citrus harvest for many farmers who might not be able to water their crops further and who do not have access to alternative sources, such as boreholes,” she said.

Even when farmers substituted their water supply by drilling boreholes, that water quality was not always suitable for agricultural use, she added.

“The situation was already dire for our cash crop and dairy farmers from the start of the water year, as a 20% availability of their full water allocations has had a devastating effect on the planting of cash crops and the watering of pastures for dairy farming.”

Many farmers have had to outsource the planting of their crops and grazing of their cattle to areas where water is more plentiful.

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