Olifants River irrigation scheme

Olifants River irrigation scheme

Namaqua West Coast doesn’t get much rain. It is however among one of South Africa’s thriving agricultural regions 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 concrete canals transport water throughout the region. They start at the Bulshoek and Clanwilliam dams. The scheme 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 life-blood of an agricultural and industrial sector that creates thousands of jobs and is a substantial tax contributor to the South African economy.

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.