As part of project to support local media reporting on climate issues, OpenUp - with the backing of Africa Data Hub - spent some time with Zinhle Cebekhulu, editor of INKundla Yezindaba, an isiZulu newspaper based in KwaZulu-Natal.
Cebekhulu was aware of an issue impacting residents of the province who live on the banks of the Inanda Dam in eThikwini. This community are frustrated by the seemingly unpredictable water levels of the dam, which flood homes and roads, and present a life threatening risk to children and cattle in the area.
While Cebekhulu worked in the community to gather resident’s stories of the impact of this unpredictability, OpenUp’s researchers used a variety of tools to verify stories and try to understand the issue in detail. Three primary sources of data were used:
Google Earth’s historical satellite imagery showed a large variation in the dam boundary over time. While this seemed to correlate with the complaints of the community, however, the imprecise nature of the images, and the lack of specific dates for comparing annual pictures, meant more investigation was needed.
As part of the investigation, our data team built a useful tool for visualising historical water levels at all major South African dams and reservoirs. The data we used came from the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS). For a long time this data has been accessible online, but not in a way that made historical analysis easy. The database was only providing the data for periods of up to 5 years. However, with some probing of the DWS API, we were able to extract the full range of all available data and used it to create a simple dashboard using Looker Studio, a free tool for visualising complex data from Google. These kinds of tools can be quite useful as they greatly speed up the processes of investigative journalism. With this dashboard it became apparent that the water levels in Inanda were very consistently managed until the drought of 2015. But since then, there has been substantial variation in the waterline. This confirms the community’s complaint and the same patterns were not observed in feeder dams further up-river.
Finally, we cross-referenced this data with historical rainfall information from our African Climate Observer. This investigation clearly showed that low water levels didn’t always correlate with dry periods, suggesting other issues around water management might be to blame.
Through this collaboration Cebekhulu was able to use these insights, along with the information gathered on the ground, to inform the way she drew up questions for local authorities in charge of water management. In particular, she was able to demonstrate that current communication strategies are not effective, and will become more important as rainfall patterns become less predictable in the future.
The story, Cebekhulu says, has had great impact. “The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive,” she says, “Our efforts have led to the initiation of potential partnerships, with discussions underway. This is a positive development that can further strengthen our community involvement and outreach. For example, we have established a close working relationship with Umgeni Water and Umsinsi Holdings, aligning our efforts to create awareness regarding Inanda Dam and climate change.”
The full story is republished below with permission.
This story was produced by the newspaper INKundla Yezindaba, and was published in isiZulu in its December 2023 print edition. This is an edited version of the translated story, a second part is currently being written.
As the largest dam in KwaZulu-Natal, Inanda Dam provides water to a significant portion of the province's population. However, the fluctuating water levels of the dam have been a source of concern for the nearby community and businesses that rely on it.
Mr. Maphumulo, a senior citizen who lives close to the water’s edge, is concerned about the safety of the dam. He says that on average, four to five people lose their lives in the dam each year. Additionally, cattle sometimes drown while crossing the feeder river. What’s more, when it rains heavily the dam overflows, causing water to enter houses on the banks. To protect their children and animals, the community has been advocating for a fence at the shoreline.
The unpredictability of the water levels also impacts local businesses. Sizwe Lande is a tour guide and owner of Inanda T.D.I tours. Lande says that his previous workplace, Inanda Adventures Park, was in close proximity to the dam. However, due to the high-water levels and the park's closure, he has now relocated to Ezweni Lodge. The water levels of the dam have a direct impact on his business, especially during windy or rainy weather. The rising water often blocks access to canoes, resulting in lost business opportunities.
To address community inquiries, Mr. Wisane Mavasa, spokesperson for the Department of Water and Sanitation, explained that the fluctuating dam level has no impact on the lives of those who live around the dam basin because the dam is designed so that water will remain within the flood line. However, the community still has concerns about the dam's impact on their daily lives. One of the common questions that arise is why the dam's levels move so much from 2014. According to Mavasa, KwaZulu-Natal experienced drought from 2013 to 2020, which explains the low level of Inanda Dam during this period.
The future water level is dependent on the weather patterns and the demand for water. Weather predictions indicate that the catchment area may receive below-average rainfall, which means that water levels may be lower than normal. Spilling is the norm. Another question that concerns the community is whether climate change consistently causes the fluctuations in the dam's water levels. The answer is yes. The Department publishes all dam levels on its website to keep the community informed of the situation. Concerns about the safety of people living around and crossing the dam have also been raised. Mavasa advises that people living around the dam should only cross via the bridges and should not cross through the dam basin.
The dam is zoned in accordance with the Resource Management Plan, and only restricted areas are fenced and patrolled by security personnel. The community has also raised concerns about the lack of campaign regarding the dam. The Department is planning to conduct sand mining and encroachment awareness campaigns during the 2024/25 Financial Year.
Collected data that shows the actual water levels over time, the chart showing rainfall in the area, and another map with feeder dams. The data reveals that annual rainfall doesn't correlate with water levels, and Inanda Dam is reliant on the dams further up the river.
In conclusion, the fluctuating water levels of Inanda Dam are a source of concern for the community and businesses that rely on it. However, the Department assures the community that the dam is designed to remain within the flood line, and safety measures are in place. The community is encouraged to use the Department's website to stay informed about the dam's water levels.