The Namaqua West Coast doesn’t get much rain. It is however among of South Africa’s thriving agricultural sectors thanks to an incredible network of canals, hundreds of kilometres in length. The construction represents a historic and engineering feat known as the Olifants River Irrigation Scheme and is the country’s oldest.
The scheme’s open canals of concrete transport water throughout the region and start at the Bulshoek and Clanwilliam dams. It was formally established in 1911, but has a history that goes back to the middle of the 19th century.
Initially comprising hand-dug trenches, the canals were later solidified with concrete – a job that Italian POWs were engaged in during World War 2. Amazingly, there is not a single pump along the entire course of the canals. Like the Roman aqueducts, water flows from its source to dams spread across the region, by gravitation only.
The canal is the lifeblood of an agricultural and industrial sector that creates thousands of jobs and is a substantial tax contributor to the South African economy.
Today thousands of hectares of vineyards, orchards and fields of lucerne, beans, cucumbers, peppers, paprika, coriander and tomatoes are dependent on water from the scheme. Olives are burgeoning too, with olives and olive oil becoming a must-have souvenir of every visit.
Much of the produce is supplied to well-known national retailers.
In addition to large producers, numerous small and emerging farmers such as those at Ebenhaezer, thrive in the region.
The irrigation scheme visible across the Namaqua West Coast is 321km in length and comprises a central canal of 261 km with 11 branches. It supplies 26 000m³ of water per hour, for irrigation to 680 farmers, municipal drinking water to towns, and industrial processes to major companies. The upgrades underway at the Clanwilliam dam will make additional water available, allowing for amongst others the expansion of farms and emerging farms, and is anticipated to benefit riverine habitats as well.
Did you know?
Rooibos occurs naturally in this region – the only place in the world to do so. Rooibos (Aspalathus linear) is used to make South Africa’s most famous tea and enjoys international geographic indicator status. The plant is endemic to the Cederberg, Bokkeveld and Matzikama Mountains.
The Olifants River Valley is one of South Africa’s most extensive farming regions, located in what is also one of the country’s most arid territories. Located 300 km north of Cape Town, the producers along the Olifants River thrive almost exclusively as a result of an extensive irrigation system with a fascinating history.
The construction of a canal that is the heart of this system is a story of determination, tenacity and skill. Undeterred by the harsh climate and inhospitable land, pioneers in the early 20th century built the canal by hand. They also built it at an exact ratio of decline over a vast distance so that the water moves exclusively by gravity, from start to finish.
Today, the main canal extends for 260 km and has side-branches totalling a further 60km. It supplies water to the Bulshoek Dam near Rondeberg, as well as to farmers from Koekenaap to Ebenhaeser. In an area with an average rainfall of only 160mm/year, water allocation from the canal is spread over 15 000 ha of land.
Vineyards were already planted in the 18th century in the Olifants River Valley because in 1804 more than 42 000 vines were recorded. Wine and brandy were being produced. Disease, heavy taxes and red tape however meant this industry was reduced to just 5000 vines in 1824. Grape farming picked up again however so much so that in 1904, vine records showed 349 000.
The establishment of the Olifants River irrigation scheme in 1924 radically changed the shape and form of agriculture in the valley and sparked phenomenal growth and development. Agricultural production initially focused on the available mudflats exclusively and as a result of the water shortage and the fact that higher lying drier bank could not be cultivated without heavy machinery. There were also distribution problems that were resolved in 1927 with the arrival of the railways and the ensuing linkage with Cape Town.
Some 11000 ha under irrigation in the Olifants River irrigation area in 1990 were roughly 7000 ha, in other words 63,3% under vineyard. The rest comprised vegetables and lucerne. Currently, canned tomatoes, beans and to a smaller degree market tomatoes and potatoes after vineyards, the most important farming types. Although lucerne is also grown, it is only used as a filler crop to help prepare for vine plantings. Nearly 2,5 ha English cucumbers are produced by seven producers using tunnels.
Raisin production has been a popular farming occupation between the late 30s and mid-1950s along the Olifants River at Vredendal. Raisins were sent directly by rail to the SA Dry Fruit Co-op in Worcester. There are numerous raisin companies in the area today that buy in produce from the farmers. There has also been a large development of table grapes, primarily in the Trawal, Klawer and Vredendal areas.
The Hardeveld is comprised mainly of sheep farms and the Matzikamma mountains and the area around Vanrhynsdorp produces high quality Rooibos.