Is South Africa one of the 30 driest countries on earth?

The claim by the department of water and sanitation that South Africa is ranked amongst the 30 driest countries in the world doesn’t hold water.

South Africa’s department of water and sanitation ushered in spring with a warning to citizens of the North West province to use water more sparingly.

To add impact to their message, the department said “South Africa is ranked amongst the 30 driest countries in the world hence we are urging everyone to take responsibility in water conservation to avoid future water crises”.  

North West is but one South African province where dams are running low and citizens are facing water restrictions.

But the claim, repeated by the department in newsletters, media statements and speeches since at least 2004, is incorrect.

How is ‘driest’ measured?

Ratau said that “the degree to which countries are dry or the ranking thereof is done in terms of water scarcity or average rainfall per year”.

But South Africa does not rank among the top 30 countries in the world when average rainfall per year is compared.

The Aquastat database of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation shows that South Africa ranked 39th at last count.

The countries with the least annual rainfall in 2014 were Egypt (51 mm), Libya (56 mm) and Saudi Arabia (59 mm).

Africa Check tried to verify the source of the 495 mm figure listed by the Food and Agricultural Organization for South Africa but was unable to do so at the time of publication. However, it is in line with South Africa’s average annual rainfall of 509 mm between 1981 and 2010 as calculated by the South African Weather Service.

Lecturer in the environmental and geographical science department at the University of Cape Town, Dr Kevin Winter, told Africa Check that while average annual rainfall by country is used as a measure of dryness it is not the sole or best measure.

“Rainfall varies considerably across South Africa and it therefore cannot be the sole indicator on scarcity rankings,” he added.

Other variables like evaporation, the amount of water that reaches and flows through rivers (called “mean annual runoff”), water demand and spatial variations across the country should be considered too.

A survey of water stress – which estimates how much demand is placed on a country’s water supply – put South Africa 65th of 180 countries in 2013. (See box below.)

How useful are rankings anyway?

Manager of the water resources research portfolio at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa, Dr Marius Claassen, told Africa Check that while country rankings may help South Africans understand their position as compared to other countries, they are not “the final answer”.

“We need to cope with what we have, regardless of how much other people have,” Claassen said.

Because “rankings aside, South Africa does have significant regions of high water stress, and is very vulnerable to water risks”, Andrew Maddocks, communications officer at the World Resources Institute, told Africa Check. 

Conclusion: SA not among world’s 30 driest countries

The claim that South Africa ranks amongst the 30 driest countries in the world is not supported by available data.

Annual rainfall data shows the country ranked 39th out of 182 countries in 2014. However, an expert told Africa Check that rainfall is only one component that needs to be looked at as it varies considerably across South Africa.


Additional reading

Frequently asked questions about South Africa’s drought

Zambia doesn’t hold 60% of southern Africa’s freshwater, but 4.5%

What about South Africa’s water stress? The executive manager for water use and waste management at the Water Research Council, Jay Bhagwan, referred Africa Check to the Aqueduct country and river basin rankings. Compiled by the World Resources Institute, South Africa was placed 65th out of 180 countries in 2013 when water stress is considered. Water stress “refers to the level of competition for available water resources”, water programme coordinator at Institute, Eliza Swedenborg, told Africa Check. To determine water stress the institute took into account the demand for water in the form of “how much water is withdrawn every year from rivers, streams, and shallow aquifers for domestics, agricultural and industrial uses” along with the supply of water each country receives. The supply of water is accounted for in the study by considering a variety of variables including rainfall “as well as modelled hydrological flows, soil moisture and other indicators”, Andrew Maddocks from the Institute’s communication team told Africa Check. The methodology the Institute uses allows for comparison among countries and major river basins, the study’s working paper noted. Some of the countries tied for the highest possible water stress score included the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Qatar, Jamaica and the Comoros.

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