The Orange River basin

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The Orange River basin is by far the most valuable and important river basin in South Africa. It comprises the Vaal River basin, which serves as the main tributary of the Orange River. The Vaal River is significant because it provides water to South African industry, notably the greater Johannesburg and Pretoria districts. The Vaal River Basin provides more than half of South Africa's industry and wealth, as well as more than 80% of the country's electrical needs. This basin also supplies South African gold and platinum miners, as well as the majority of the world's coal reserves. The Orange River affects not less than six of the nine provinces of South Africa and some of the Africans water projects (Sullivan 192).

The water management strategies have been determined by the increase in the scarcity of the aquatic resources in the region. All the riparian countries including South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho and Botswana struggle for these limited resources for them to fulfill their economic development endeavors. The struggle is also motivated by the country's desire to secure their future developments economically and sustain the welfare of their nations. The Orange River Basin acts as the backbone for agriculture and industrial utilization in all the riparian countries. Effective management of this water is key is ensuring efficient and effective operation of the river in fulfilling the needs and desires of all the beneficiary countries (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry - Republic of South Africa).

There has been recent establishment of multilateral agreements (orange-Senqu River Commission, ORASECOM) following the dominating traditional bilateral agreements in the region. Traditionally, bilateral agreement has been the basis for the relationship between the individual riparian states and a means for ensuring effective operations along the Orange River Basin. Establishment of a multilateral agreement in this region is a good direction to conflict resolutions currently and in the future and equitable allocation of resources brought by this important river.

The process of regional cooperation and efficient functionality of the Orange River has direct relationships with development of policies in the past years. These policies objectively aimed at establishing collaborations between Southern African countries in order to advances the economic developments in the region hence ensuring uniformity in the benefits of the resources. Various treaties, laws, doctrines and stakeholder agreements have been established in order to ensure effective functionality of the Orange River Basin waters and efficient waterways (Sullivan 200).

Description of the Orange River Basin

Orange River Basin is the largest South African watershed and he largest river in the southern parts of the Zambezi. Approximately 60% of the total area of the river lies in the lands of South Africa. The remaining percentage falls within Namibia (25%), Botswana(11%) and Lesotho(4%). The Orange River basin has its origin from the Drakensberg range in Lesotho and moves 2,200km towards Atlantic Ocean. This river is characterized by variable a rainfall that is extreme that ranges from approximately 2000mm annually in the highlands of Lesotho to around 50mm annually. It also experiences extremely arid conditions near the mouth of the basin having annual approximate evaporation of 1,100mm in Lesotho highlands and 3,000mm in the lower regions of the Orange River basin (Sullivan 145).

The Orange River basin has Caledon, Senqu, Kraal and Vaal rivers as its main tributaries. The river receives water downstream from Hartbees, Fish and Molopo rivers. These rivers however run dry severally on an annual basis due to severe droughts. The Orange River does not have any significant delta or extensive floodplains.

The variability of climate along the Orange River Basin contributes in the differences in water distribution along the basin. Irrigation dominates the use of the Orange River water, using approximately 54%. Only 10% of the waters is used for environmental demands and 2% used for in urban and industrial activities. Evaporation and runoff to the ocean accounts for 34% of the Orange River. This goes through the canals and mouth of the basin (Nakayam 45).

Water allocation and use of the Orange River Basin

The Orange-Senqu river basin water is primarily known for use in agriculture and irrigation. There are also pretty high environmental flow requirements. However, power generation, mining industries and domestic consumption of the water from this river is less experienced since less water is used for such activities. The use of water from the Orange River basin differs from region to region. It is evident from the experiences that agriculture is the major consumer of water from the orange-Senqu river basin hence the most allocation. Agricultural activities are dominant on the mid to lower reaches of the river basin while domestic use, mining and industrial activities allocation of water is predominated by the Vaal River's upper reaches.

Issues Affecting Efficient Operation of the Orange River Basin

Availability and allocation of water forms the main issue of conflict in the Orange River region. Border conflicts between the riparian countries have also resulted in major conflicts in the region. The southern African Development Community contains three of the four driest riparian countries that benefits from the Orange River basin. Among the countries facing water deficit are South Africa. The water management facilities experiences shortages of water even though most of these water management facilities are fully developed and operational. The demand in water use is further accelerated by the rise in population, industrialization and urbanization. Such development results in increased demands in the consumption and competition of the limited water resources.

An extremely arid hydro climate is experienced by Namibia. Due to this, the country faces much water stress and huge absolute scarcity of water. This country has established wastewater recycling programs and development of desalination technology. However, due to the extreme scarcity of water in this region, the country still needs international water resources in order to meet its demands for development. Namibia highly embraces irrigation and this acts as a major cause of demand for the scarce water (Emmet and Hagg).

South Africa dominated Namibia in its administration from 1915 to 1990 by the management of the lower Orange River. This domination ensured that there were minimum inter state disputes concerning the river. The 75 year rule of South Africa on Namibia ensured bilateral and ambivalence relationship.

The gaining of independence by Namibia led to its government's aspiration to develop its own southern region of the Orange River. This move by Namibia had resulted in several water disputes with its counterpart South Africa. Conflicts at the border region results from unequal allocation of the waters from the Orange River basin leading to differences. Other differences arose from water pricing, shared border and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. Due to changes in climatic conditions, the scarcity of water has further exacerbated the conflicts due to inequitable and unsustainable sharing of water in the basin.

The delineation of the borders by these two countries has implications on the use of the Orange River water. This has adequately prevented Namibia from accessing the water independently. This delineation also affects the mining activities, prospects and opportunities for the allocation and exploitation of marine resource for both Namibia and South Africa. South Africa has however objected that despite the border issues, it will not refuse to share the Orange River waters with Namibia. It is of paramount importance that both the countries make a joint basin management for the resolution of future conflict.

Downstream conflicts have aroused between Namibia South Africa as result of water allocation and pricing. When Namibia gained independence in 1990, there was agreement that Namibia would have certain amount of water from the available and operational infrastructures. This reception was to be free of charge but over the years this country resorted to develop its own southern region and this resulted in a greater use of the water from the Orange River hence resulting in disputes. Namibia additionally asked for temporary allocation of water from South Africa in order to facilitate its social, agricultural and economic activities. South Africa in return responded to Namibia's demands by asking for additional charges and imposition of full charges on Namibia in accordance to the water tariffs of South Africa (Nakayam 18).

According to South African's demands, Namibia was to contribute in the maintenance costs incurred in water storage and regulation of the lower Orange River by the South African government. Currently, Namibia has to comply with the demands of South Africa since thy do not have their own water infrastructures. This has subsequently led to certain disputes over the water between the two countries.

Lesotho and South Africa in 1986 signed a treaty on the Lesotho highlands Water project due to the South Africans increasing water demands. This project was aimed at diverting the Lesotho highland waters to South Africa's Guateng province. The signing of the treaty was aimed at ensuring that there is a mutual benefit and a win-win situation between the two countries. However, despite the enthusiasm that came with this venture, deals of controversies arouse from the agreement. Due to political history and differences, there was massive impact of the treaty on the environment and the people of the local communities.

Because of the treaties between South Africa and Lesotho regarding the expansion of Lesotho Highlands Water Project, Namibia feared that there would be reduction of water to its southern region that formed part of their distinguished infrastructure.

Impacts of climate change have to some extent facilitated the conflict existing along the Orange River basin. Seasonal and spatial variation of rainfall in the region and variation in the rates of evaporation constitutes reasons for conflicts. The Lesotho highlands experiences relatively high precipitation rates and low rates of evaporation. This variability will definitely lead to impact in climatic change. The precipitation is expected to decrease in downstream hence resulting in reduced surface runoff and the recharge of groundwater will definitely pose problems and challenges in maintaining economic development and food security in south Africa and other basin countries like Namibia hence conflicts arousal (Nakayam 28).

Treaties, Doctrines and Agreements to Enhance Resolution Efforts of Orange River Basin Conflicts for Effective Operations

Conflicts arising from the inequitable distribution of the resources along the Orange River basin have been addressed. Organizational and governmental treaties, doctrines and stakeholder agreements have been pursued in order to ensure the full functionality and efficiency of operation of the river. Three major resolution efforts have come up from the policies, doctrines and treaties signed by the various stakeholders benefiting from the Orange River Basin. High-level institutional development, resilience of water cooperation and inter and intra-basin water transfers have been the epitome of agreements for conflict resolution. These efforts are:

High-level institutional development

Institutionally, the Orange River basin demonstrates a high and advanced level of institutionalized water cooperation. The nations benefiting from the basin have concluded six bilateral agreements, two regional water protocols and one basin-wide treaty. The basin-wide treaty led to the year 2000 establishment of the ORESACOM (orange-Senqu River Commission). This is an organization of the river basin that has delegates from all the four riparian countries. The main purpose of this organization is to provide technical advice for the parties in the riparian countries in relation to water matters. These matters include water developments, conservation and utilization. The SADC guides the ORESACOM in fulfilling its mandate of organizational management of the Orange River Basin. The SADC Protocol acts the key guidance to ORESACOM on Shared Watercourses. Its formation into SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses was a major move to technical advice on conflict resolution and resource management of the Orange River Basin. This function of organization by SADC was first passed in the year 1995 and later revised in 2000 (Global Judges' Symposium on Sustainable Development and the Role of Law).

The SADC Protocol on Shared Watercourses defines the requirements, cooperation practices and binding rules the governance of water resources in South Africa. This government doctrine has significantly led to the improvement of water resource cooperation in the regions benefiting from the Orange River Waters. This protocol also provides general principles, objectives and general water best practices. It provides guidelines for shared water agreements and guides other basins organizations such as Limpopo Commission, Zambezi Watercourse Commission and the aforementioned Orange-Senqu Watercourse Commission (De Coning and Sherwill).

The introduction of bilateral and multilateral treaties between south Africa and Namibia that was conclude in 1992 created a Joint irrigation Authority (JIA) and led to the development of Permanent Water Commission (PWC). These bodies help in undertaking water issue investigations and negotiations. These bodies also give recommendations of how the water resources should be allocated among the beneficiary stakeholders.

The main objective of ORESACOM is establishing agreements between the four basin states in respect to the allocation of water needs. Completion of water sharing deals between Namibia and South Africa has always proved a challenge despite past negotiations on formal water sharing agreements. Both the bilateral and multilateral cooperation between these two countries have by far not resulted I the formation of any significant treaty on water sharing. However, these two disagreeing countries have established avenues information exchange and joint studies on demand projections, cost sharing, climate change and new infrastructure development (Department of Water Affairs and Forestry).

ORESACOM have created avenues for research studies whereby researchers modeled a downscaled climate change implications and scenarios for the flow of water in the Orange-Senqu Basin. Some of the agreements formulated by the riparian countries are related to the revocation clauses, amendment and review processes. These agreements have been deemed useful in supporting the basins capacity to deal with climate change impacts. These agreements have also massively contributed to the effective water flow along the river to the respective beneficiaries with minimal conflicts.

Treaties, doctrines and stakeholder agreements within the Orange River Basin have been done in an amicable manner. This has made the Orange River basin to be the most stable water body in the SADC region. This region has the highest number of regimes. The resilience of the ORESACOM has seen to it that it is the most peaceful and has prevented most of the water related conflicts in the region. Spiraling into disagreements between South Africa and Namibia has been controlled by such organizational bodies at the basin region (Nakayam 167).

Stakeholders are able to provide technical and financial support, bilateral and multilateral development partnerships to help expand the institution and future developments of the Orange River basin. Such initiative is significant in ensuring effective water allocation and in the resolve of any future disputes that might emerge in the region.

Resilience of water cooperation

The South African and Namibia border disagreement illustrates the institutional resilience experienced at the basin region. However, formal resolution of such border disagreements is desirable. This can be achieved by collaboration between the respective stakeholders. This disagreement has however not ambiguously affected the operations of institutions like ORESACOM. Water cooperation does not significantly emerge from the border dispute between these two countries, an indication of good management and cooperation (Sullivan 223).

Intra and inter-basin water transfers

One of the most promising initiative and method of alleviating water stress and conflict in the region involves the expansion of intra and inter-basin water transfers. This can be best achieved by the expansion of the lower Orange River basin. This expansion can mark an opportunity to improve water supply to Botswana and Namibia. Namibia therefore should adequately cooperate in this initiative in order for it to benefit from opportunities emanating from the upstream and downstream areas. Currently, various inter-basin transfers such as schemes connecting the Orange River with other rivers such as Maputo, Limpopo, and Thukela are being helpful for this opportunity. Debates on the transfers from Congo and Zambezi rivers have also been considered in addressing water shortage. Such debates are deemed useful in reducing competition for water resources that keeps diminishing. This forms one of the various means to ensure that there is effective water flow along the Orange River basin (Sullivan 192).

Orange river basin requires cooperative management and collaboration between the various stakeholders. The river basin organizations are mostly tasked with investigating, monitoring, coordinating and regulating the activities of the basin. They are also tasked with planning and the management of the basin's finances and managing and developing infrastructures of the basin. Certain factors that that support cooperative management include the development of management structures that is adaptable and flexible to the concerns of the public. Also, flexible and clear criteria in the allocation of water quality and allocation ought to be considered. Quality management of the basin, clear and informed mastery and understanding of the dynamics of the basin should support this. Equitable distribution of the opportunities and benefits obtained from the basin in the form of hydroelectricity, economic development benefits, environmental protection and agriculture should be priorities for effective management. Finally, there is need for the establishment of concrete conflict resolution mechanisms.

Several water National Policies has been formulated to enhance effective operation of the Orange River Basin. Such policies Lesotho Environmental Policy, South African's National White Paper policy of 1997, Namibia's Water and Sanitation Policy of 1990 formed immediately after Namibia's independence from South Africa. A document detailing water management activity of Botswana known as the Botswana National Water Master Plan Study was also formulated into policy to help in aquatic resources management (De Coning and Sherwill).

The water policies formulated by these nationals aimed at effective utilization of the Orange River basin and promote mutual benefits from the various stakeholders. The policies also emphasized on development of the basin, benefiting its citizens, and ensuring effective environmental impacts in the region. These policies had common objectives such as ensuring sanitation and water supply services becomes available to al the inhabitants of the region. The governments and various stakeholders in the orange river basin worked collaboratively to ensure that the well being of the orange river is their priority and that all mutually benefit from the resources coming from this water body. The treaties, doctrines and agreements signed between the stakeholders aimed at ensuring minimized disagreements. It also contributed to the equitable allocation of water resources to all the beneficiaries.


The Orange River basin is a complex and a vast river that is situated within the South African development Community. It has an approximate size of 900,000 square kilometers. This river has an approximate total habitation of 19 million people. Four countries namely Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia and south Africa are sharing this river. The Orange River basin raises towards the Lesotho highlands in Lesotho a place called Senqu hence the name Orange-Senqu River. The Orange River flows to the Atlantic Ocean covering about 2,300 kilometers in length. Several tributaries feed the Orange River along its way to the Atlantic Ocean. The Orange River has its waters allocated fro various functions. Agriculture dominates the roles of the Orange River waters followed by urban and rural use and finally other functions like hydroelectricity power generation and industrial functions. Socio-economic activities such as tourism act as one of the major sources f revenue for the river. Various conflicts have been reported among the countries sharing the Orange River basin. Some of the conflicts reported are upstream while others downstream. Overpopulation, border issues, colonization and certain treated have been the cause of such basin conflicts. The beneficiaries of the Orange River basin have formulated treaties, doctrines and agreements to ensure that there is ample and effective operation of the basin. Various conflict resolution mechanisms have been established and strategies embraced for efficiency. Such developments are essential to ensure that future conflicts do not arise and if they do, there will be effective means for resolution.

Works Cited

De Coning and C. Sherwill, T: An assessment of the water policy process in South Africa (1994 to 2003), (2004) A report to the Water Research Commission, Report Number: TT 232/04, download at, (25.05.2005).

Department of Water Affairs and Forestry - Republic of South Africa: National Water Policy for South Africa - (1997) White Paper., (25.05.2005).

Emmett, Tony; Hagg, Gerard : Politics of Water Management: The case of the Orange River Development Project, in Meshack M Khosa (ed.): Empowerment through Economic Transformation, (2001) Chapter11,downloadat: h_ Economic_Transformation.pdf, (25.05.2005).

Global Judges' Symposium on Sustainable Development and the Role of Law: Lesotho,

(2002) Download at c.

Nakayama, Mikiyasu. International Waters in Southern Africa. Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2003. Internet resource.

Sullivan, C. Challenges for Management of the Orange/Senqu River Basin. In: Squires, V. R., Milner, H. M. & Daniell, K. A. (eds.). River Basin Management in the Twenty-First Century: Understanding People and Place (2015) Boca Raton: CRC Press, 189-215

Wolf, A. T. and Newton, J. T.. Case Studies of Transboundary Dispute Resolution. In: Delli Priscoli, J. & Wolf, A. T. Managing and Transforming Water Conflicts (2009). New York: Cambridge University Press, 169-248

May 10, 2023

Africa Nature

Subject area:

South Africa Water Wealth

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