Forestry in South Africa
Wednesday, April 8, 2020

click here to see
all logo's

June : Best Practices in Commercial Forestry : Water Management

previous page
15 June, 2016

Best Practices in Commercial Forestry : Water Management

Water is one of the most significant emerging global sustainability issues.  And South Africa is a water-limited country with an average rainfall of between 500 - 600 mm per annum.   In the face of current drought conditions we spoke to Roger Godsmark, Forestry South Africa's Operations Director and Dr John Scotcher, Environmental Consultant to Forestry South Africa, to gain insight on how commercial forestry in South Africa has improved on its water management practices since the 1970s.

Commercial forestry's water consumption - a national perspective

To bring a sense of proportion to bear, it is interesting to note that Agriculture, with its need for irrigation, is responsible for the consumption of approximately 60% of South Africa's available water, whereas forestry's commercial plantations are responsible for the consumption of 3-4% of South Africa's available water.  It has to be said that this consumption value is to be viewed through the lens of its having a particular geographical skew, due to the very regional nature of forestry in South Africa, ranging as it does down the Eastern Seaboard, in areas which receive sufficient levels of rainfall to facilitate commercial forestry.  Thus while commercial plantations account for zero water consumption in some regions they account for 30% or more in others.

It is also interesting to note that poor water practice and poorly maintained infrastructure in South Africa leads to a sizeable increase in the "consumption" of surface water over the ideal.  A World Wildlife Fund (2014) report states that the water wasted in South Africa every year would fill 600 000 Olympic-sized swimming pools1.  In light of this fact it might be said that forestry plantations use a portion, but not all, of that surface water which is lost to consumers and ‘goes to ground'.

From 1998, as stipulated by the National Water Act (No. 36 of 1998), commercial forestry has been required to register, licence and pay for their use of water.

Scientific advancement in South Africa towards best water practice

As forestry constitutes a significant industrial sector in the South African economy, yet is perceived to place significant demands on available water resources, there has been extensive research and several world-class hydrological impact studies undertaken - starting as early as in 1939 - to determine the impact of commercial forestry's water consumption.

"Results from the long history of forest plantation hydrology have been compiled and are currently used to provide a scientific basis for South African legislation decisions relating to water use estimates and water resource allocation among users. The methodology developed to meet the requirements of South Africa's Water Law has worldwide relevance, as it has the potential to influence future policy and the sustainable management of water in any country faced with water resource management challenges." 2

Legislation towards best water practice

Before the Forest Amendment Act no. 40 of 1972 there was no regulation of commercial forestry in South Africa. Between 1972 and 1998, the establishment of plantation forest was regulated through the afforestation permit system where any new plantation had to receive permission before being planted. Then in 1998, when forestry regulation passed from being the jurisdiction of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries to the Department of Water Affairs & Forestry, commercial afforestation - or the establishment of a forest in an area where there had previously been no forest - was declared a stream flow reduction activity (SFRA), thereafter to be regulated by the National Water Act (No. 36 of 1998).

The definition of a SFRA is, "any dryland land use practice, which reduces the yield of water (with reference to yield from natural veld in undisturbed conditions) from that land to downstream users." 3 To date forestry is cited as the only SFRA in South Africa - but with other particular agricultural sectors in line to be categorised as such in the future.

Commercial forestry's proactive initiative to institute best water practices

"In playing a proactive role towards water conservation, despite there not being a legal requirement to do so with trees planted prior to 1972, commercial forestry estates have, since legislation was instituted, steadily removed the trees planted within the measured buffer zones of wetland areas and rivers - it has been calculated that 80-90000 hectares have been removed since the year 2000, which has contributed to the declined in the extent of afforested land from 1,5 million hectares to todays 1,25 million hectares. " Dr Scotcher informed us.  Additional land has been withdrawn from afforestation in marginal forestry areas, while the impact of the increased accuracy of GPS in mapping plantation areas has also improved the estimation of the extent of land under plantation forests.

The conservation of biodiversity also plays a role in the conservation of water.  25 - 30% of any forestry estate is not planted, being given over to natural vegetation.  And on several estates this area is a declared Nature Reserve, being actively protected and conserved for the sake of biodiversity.   An excellent example of collaboration between commercial forestry and conservation is seen in the intervention of SANBI's Grasslands Programme and Biodiversity Screening Tool, "there has been no new expansion of forestry into designated biodiversity priority areas. The tool has proven to be effective in enabling decision makers to proactively avoid biodiversity priority areas when planning new afforestation in the Eastern Cape." 4

In conclusion

In a final word Roger Godsmark of Forestry SA says, "While there is no simple answer to the question of how much water forests use, research continues to improve our ability to predict the impact of commercial forestry on South African water supplies.  It remains the commercial forester's mandate to balance water conservation and demand in a responsible manner - to the benefit of the environment and good of our very important timber industry."

1  - page 15
4  inspired/what-the-grasslands-programme-did-in-the-forestry-sector