The iMfolozi River has slowed to a trickle and conservation staff are digging up dry river beds so wildlife can access underground water. Picture: Keran Ducasse

Durban - As drought tightens its grip in Zululand, conservation staff in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park have started digging up dry river beds to help wildlife reach underground water.

To make the situation worse, fodder for antelope and other grazing and browsing species was in short supply as nearly 45 percent of the 96 000 hectare park had been burned in controlled fires in anticipation of spring rains that were yet to come.

The flow of water in the Black iMfolozi River has all but dried up, sparking calls for the neighbouring Zululand Anthracite Colliery (ZAC) mine to halt or reduce its water abstraction until the drought breaks.

The mine, owned by Rio Tinto, recently paid a R497 000 government fine for building three new coal shafts over the past eight years without environmental authorisation.

Park manager Jabulani Ngubane said that although the shortage was not at crisis levels yet, he predicted “big problems” for wildlife if the park did not get good rains by mid-October. “We started digging into the Black iMfolozi and other dry river beds to help animals reach water.

“Although we have been in this situation before, the park is very dry. We also completed several controlled burns in anticipation of early rains so animals have had to graze and browse in other parts of the reserve.”

Environmental attorney Kirsten Youens, acting for the Global Environmental Trust, has written to the Department of Water Affairs to establish whether the ZAC is complying with its water permit licence.

In terms of the Water Act, the department was entitled to suspend or withdraw a water licence if there was a failure to comply with the licence conditions or with the Act, or if water reached critical levels.

African Conservation Trust’s Paul Cryer, who spent nearly 20 years as a wilderness trail guide in iMfolozi, said low winter flow was generally due to poor rain.

However, the catchment area of the White and Black iMfolozi rivers had been damaged by increased siltation over the past decades, and the increasing abstraction of water for coal mining, timber plantations and domestic use would exacerbate problems. He said some animals were more sensitive to drought, especially recently weaned white and black rhino calves, because for the first time in their lives they were entirely reliant on an adequate supply of good drinking water to digest food.

ZAC managing director Niels Kristensen said the mine shared the Black iMfolozi with other users and had been proactive in increasing the amount of recycled water, to reduce water use from a scarce resource.

“In response to the dwindling water supply, ZAC recently installed additional pumping infrastructure to recycle excess water from our underground operations for use in our processing plant, thereby eliminating the need for fresh water use in that part of the operation. This has been in operation for the past two months and has resulted in a reduction of close to 20 percent in water abstraction from the Black iMfolozi. The permitted level has not increased over the years, despite additional mining shafts being brought into operation.”

The Mercury