South Africa is considered a semi-arid country that relies on dams for water supply. In addition to having half the global average annual rainfall, the country has high evaporation rates (due to its abundant sunshine). Less than 9% of the precipitation on South African soil eventually reaches the country’s river systems. Rain is also distributed unevenly across the country, with 60% of total annual runoff occurring in only 20% of the surface area (mainly the eastern part). With that said, water is a scarce resource which makes its management one of the most significant challenges facing us globally.

The operations and maintenance of dams are essential to sound and sustainable water resource management. South Africa has more than 5000 large dams used mainly for irrigation purposes in different agribusinesses. It is, therefore, not surprising that the agricultural sector is linked to most of the dams on the Dam Safety Register (a total of 4 001 or 80%). Due to this, specific dam safety requirements are established and enforced by the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). The collapse of the Jagersfontein tailings storage facility is a reminder that these requirements are in place to ensure that dams in the country are designed, constructed, operated, and maintained in a safe manner.

The applicable legislation for abstracting and storing significant amounts of water is clear. The storing of more than 10 000 m3 of water on a property must be registered with the responsible authority as per Government Notice no. 538, in Government Gazette no. 40243 (2 September 2016). This legislation also states that any water storage facility (dam or reservoir) with a wall height of 5 m or higher and a storage capacity exceeding 50 000 m3 poses a safety risk and requires registration with the Dam Safety office within the DWS (Department of Water and Sanitation).

Dams potentially provide social and economic benefits, but at the same time, pose a threat to the environment and the lives and livelihoods of the surrounding community. Dam owners are legally obligated to ensure that dams are operated at an optimal level whilst not compromising safety. The SIZA Environmental Standard is based on South African legislation and therefore encourages agribusinesses who have above-ground water storage facilities, to have a deep understanding of this water source and the relevant risks that this water source poses to society and the surrounding environment.