The SA Weather Service forecasts a serious drought in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Crops and livestock are being threatened. Photo: Bongani Mbatha

Unseasonably low rainfall this summer is pushing parts of South Africa towards damaging water shortages, threatening major industries from mining to agriculture.

KwaZulu-Natal has begun instituting mandatory water restrictions as the region grapples with fallout from a year-long drought. Big business is revising their production targets, maintenance schedules and are considering retrenchments as a result of the looming water crisis.

In North West, there has been an ongoing protest by a community in Majakaneng village, blaming local authorities for allegedly diverting water to mining companies.

Michelle Boshoff, Richards Bay Minerals’ (RBM) manager for environment, told Business Report that it was running low on its water reserves.

“Without water we will stop. We are water-dependent and our reserves are running low and that is not good for our production because it means we need to cut down on full production,” Boshoff said.

Water is a key input for RBM, in which Rio Tinto has a 74 percent stake, that it uses to extract the titanium, iron ore, ilmenite, rutile and zircon. Titanium is used in products such as paints, plastics or paper.

Zircon is used in a wide range of advanced ceramics, refractories, jewellery, electronic applications and many other industrial and domestic products.

Boshoff said RBM would be forced to bring forward its maintenance schedule at one of its four plants in the area. The mine employs 4 000 people.

“This would mean that we will have to move people around to other plants to mitigate the impact and avoid job losses,” Boshoff said.

Bhekani Ngcobo, the National Union of Mineworkers regional co-ordinator in KwaZulu-Natal, said that the mine had not consulted the union about the water crisis and its implications. “If they cut jobs without consulting us, we will definitely oppose that.”

The cost to the economy was estimated at R400 million on crops and livestock, according to the provincial government. Johannes Moller, the president of AgriSA, said that the drought was hurting the sector and would have a negative impact on sugar and maize crops.

“We will have enough maize for the local market but we will not have enough to export. Very few countries produce white maize, so if we do not have enough the entire global market will suffer,” Moller said.

Moller said the drought was affecting the Free State, North West and KwaZulu-Natal.

The country might have to import white maize or blend it with yellow maize, which was done in the early 90s but was not popular with consumers, Moller said.

BHP Billiton Aluminium South Africa, which has a plant in Richards Bay, said it would install a water treatment plant which would allow it to use clarified water instead of potable water.

Wisani Maluleke, a forecaster (meteorologist) at the SA Weather Service, said the situation was serious and things did not look good for northern KwaZulu-Natal in terms of the long-term rainfall forecast.

“The future forecast still predicts more drought.”

Sputnik Ratau, the spokesman for the Department of Water and Sanitation, defended water restriction directive, which is said to be putting a further strain on the already struggling big industries.