15 Nov 2019
By Brigitte Weidlich
Namibia has experienced an increase in natural disasters in recent years with northern areas having to cope with floodwaters in 2008-09; and the drought since 2016 is proof of the opposite extreme. Namibia is regarded as the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa with low and erratic rainfall. Namibia’s history of water supply development spreads over a hundred years. The water of its few perennial rivers, Kunene, Okavango, Zambezi and Orange is shared with neighbouring countries.
This year, the largest dam in the country, the Neckartal Dam was completed near Keetmanshoop. Plans for a second desalination plant are also underway. Recent discoveries of the huge underground Stampriet and Ohangwena aquifers might bear future solutions to sufficient water supply, as demand for this precious resource grows.
At independence in March 1990, Namibia had about 1,3 million inhabitants. To date, the population stands at approximately 2,4 million. Currently the capital city Windhoek has tough water restrictions in place; households and businesses must save 30 percent of their consumption, as dam levels are exceptionally low.
According to estimates of the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, water demand for urban areas and economic activities in Namibia stood at around 416.1 million cubic metres per annum in 2015. This will increase to about 572.5 million cubic metres by 2025. The commercial agricultural sector has the highest water consumption. With current low dam levels, irrigation activities near Mariental must be scaled back by forty percent, as the Hardap Dam was only 11% of its capacity in November 2019.
Water plans since German colonial period (1884-1915)
Namibia’s water supply comes from various sources: rivers, natural springs, wells, boreholes, storage dams, canals and underground aquifers as in the case of the Kuiseb River.
Already in 1906, the German colonial government had the first boreholes drilled in Namibia. Coastal towns like Lüderitz and Swakopmund initially received water from Cape Town by ship. Walvis Bay was under British rule then and received its water from a spring near the dune belt, from Rooibank/Scheppmannsdorf and – during better rainy seasons - from the nearby Kuiseb River.
Developments in the hinterland were often linked to Lutheran (Rhenish) and Catholic mission stations, which were started either along riverbeds or natural springs like Otjimbingwe near Karibib, Klein Windhoek, Omaruru, Gross Barmen, Bethanien or
Warmbad. The first settler farmers constructed earth dams to have water in the dry seasons. The German colonial authorities already had plans to construct large dams like Neckartal in the Fish River, at Naute to obtain water from the Löwen-River. Construction of these dams only started in the Thirties with the Omatjenne and the Avis dams constructed in 1933 under South African rule.
Today, Namibia has about 17 major dams, with Neckartal, Hardap, Ruacana, Naute, Oanob, Von Bach, Swakop-Pforte, Otjivero and Olushandja being the major ones. Unfortunately, a large percentage of their water evaporates and is lost. The state-owned entity Namibia Water Corporation (NamWater) manages these dams, 16 water treatment plants, two important water supply canals and the major water pipelines. NamWater is the bulk water supplier in the country.
The capital city of Windhoek has been recycling around thirty percent of its drinking water since the Sixties at the Goreangab plant and became the first city in the world to do so.
Rural water supply
The Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry is in charge of water resources management, drinking water supply and sanitation for rural areas. Should the need arise, water is transported in tanker trucks to villages and settlements during drought conditions. Village water committees work closely with the Ministry. To date, 91 percent of Namibia’s population has access to clean drinking water, but 25 percent still do not have access to a lavatory.
Unique water canal for the central North
While large water pipelines today transport purified water from dams to towns, a unique supply canal was constructed in north-central Namibia in the Sixties, which is still in use. It is regarded as the most important water artery and provides over 600,000 people with this precious resource. The open canal is made from concrete slabs and starts from the Calueque dam on the Angolan side of the Kunene River opposite the Ruacana hydro power station a few kilometres away from the common border. On the Namibian side, the canal runs mainly parallel to the roads from West to East as far as Ondangwa. About 600 km of smaller canals and pipelines form the water arteries for that population. Villagers on both sides of the canal use the water for drinking - including livestock - and washing. Recent negotiations by NamWater to cover it with concrete slabs were met with fierce resistance.
Eastern water carrier canal
Back in 1974 a then newly drawn up water master plan included an Eastern National Water Carrier to supply water from the Okavango River some 750 kilometres further south to the central areas. Construction of the carrier began in the late 1970’s in several phases from South to North. First, a pipeline was built from the Von-Bach Dam at Okahandja over 94 kilometres to the Omatako Dam. From there an open water canal was constructed for approximately 300km to Grootfontein. Underground water from the Berg Aukas mine is
pumped into the canal. That water reaches the Omatako dam, in recent years this dam has been mostly dry. The eastern water carrier canal is however a deadly trap for wild animals and reptiles. Several calls have been made over the years to cover the canal with concrete slabs. Authorities claim this is too expensive.
The last phase of the water supply scheme connecting Grootfontein to the Okavango River near Rundu was never built. Due to the current drought, a pipeline from Rundu to Grootfontein is being considered again to supply the central areas of Namibia with water.
Underground water aquifers still untapped
In 2012, German experts discovered a huge underground water source in north-central Namibia, which reaches into southern Angola. Named Ohangwena II, the aquifer contains some five billion cubic metres of water believed to be 10,000 years old. The aquifer is about 300 meters deep, but a saline water layer sits on top of the freshwater aquifer. Drilling for extraction must be done with care. The aquifer of the Kuiseb River close to coast is known and water is extracted from there.
The Stampriet underground aquifer in southeastern Namibia stretches into Botswana and South Africa. A detailed assessment only started in 2013 as cooperation among the three countries together with UNESCO.
Desalination the answer to water shortage
Namibia is the first country in southern Africa where a large desalination plant was constructed. It was commissioned in 2010 by the French uranium company Areva to supply water to its own uranium mine and to others in the area. It is situated near Wlotzkasbaken north of Swakopmund and has a capacity of 20 million cubic metres. Three years ago, Areva offered to sell its plant to the Namibian government, which has still not decided whether to buy it or not.
In the meantime, the government has through NamWater commissioned an environmental impact assessment this year for a new desalination plant. Germany is financing the study through its KfW Development Bank. The desalinated water is supposed to be pumped through new pipelines to central Namibia.
Namibia is making great efforts to secure water supply for the future.
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