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History of the Vaal dam

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The History of the Vaal dam

The economic prosperity of Gauteng, South Africa’s economic powerhouse, owes its existence not only to the labor of mine workers who dedicated themselves to the gold mines for over a century but also to the essential supply of water. This indispensable resource has been the driving force behind the region’s remarkable economic growth.

In the data below, we delve into the rich history of the Vaal Dam, a pivotal component of Gauteng’s water infrastructure and one of the province’s primary sources of bulk water supply. The Vaal Dam has played an integral role in sustaining the economic development of Gauteng, enabling its industries to flourish and its population to thrive.

Through our research, we uncover the remarkable story of the Vaal Dam, tracing its origins and highlighting its significance in the region’s growth. This info sheds light on the immense value that water holds in supporting economic activities, highlighting the symbiotic relationship between water and the prosperity of Gauteng.

It is our view on bringing this historical account to life, capturing the essence of the Vaal Dam’s journey and the impact it has had on the economic landscape of Gauteng. By exploring this narrative, we hope to convey the importance of water as a vital resource and the critical role it plays in sustaining economic growth to all those privilaged enough to visit the Vaal Dam.

We invite you to delve into the history, immersing yourself in the captivating tale of the Vaal Dam. Discover how this engineering marvel has been instrumental in providing the lifeblood of water to fuel Gauteng’s economic engine. Join us as we explore the past, present, and future of the Vaal Dam and gain a deeper appreciation for the intricate relationship between water and economic prosperity.

Facts & Figures about the Vaal Dam

Capacity:2,57 billion m3
Shoreline:880 km
Dam surface area:32 107 ha
Number of crest gates:
60, each capable of releasing 115 m3/s.During high floods this can increase to 202 m3/s.
Number of provinces that make up the shoreline:
 Three (Free State, Mpumalanga and Gauteng)
Dam catchment area:
38 500 km2

During the outbreak of two World Wars, the Witwatersrand experienced significant secondary industrialization, leading to a rapid population growth. This surge in population created an unprecedented demand for water. Between 1915-16 and 1921-22, the number of industrial establishments in and around Johannesburg more than doubled from 862 to 1760. Despite Johannesburg not being built on a large river like many other major cities, the Rand Water Board sought a solution and constructed the Vaal Barrage on the nearby Vaal River in the early 1920s. However, it soon became apparent that this infrastructure was insufficient to meet the growing water needs of the region.

In the early 1930s, the Rand Water Board reached the limits of its water abstraction rights, coinciding with the government’s plans to build a dam at Christiana to supply water for the Vaalhartz Irrigation Scheme. After careful deliberation, it was decided to construct a dam at the confluence of the Wilge and Vaal rivers, approximately 56 km south of Johannesburg near Vereeniging. This dam was envisioned as a mass gravity concrete structure, measuring 518.6 m long with a height of 31.14 m above the mean river bed level. Additionally, an earth embankment, 1,890 m long, was built on the Transvaal (now Gauteng) side or right bank of the river.

To bring this project to fruition, the Rand Water Board entered into a partnership with the South African government. The agreement involved securing 315 million liters per day from the Vaalbank Dam (as it was then known) and contributing R3.3 million towards the total cost of R2.3 million. Subsequently, the Vaal River Development Scheme Act was passed in 1934.

A crucial aspect of the dam’s construction was the relief of unemployment, particularly among the white population, during the Great Depression. In response to the Department of Labour’s request on March 31, 1933, public works were expedited to employ more white laborers for the dam’s construction, along with the Vaalhartz Irrigation Scheme and the Loskop Irrigation Scheme. The government’s primary interest in the dam was to provide irrigation to the Hartz River Valley Afrikaner community in the Northern Cape. Almost half of the dam’s capacity, although some evaporated along the way, was dedicated to this idealistic project. Many individuals from the so-called ‘poor whites’ were employed in the scheme. The Director of Irrigation, AD Lewis, noted in his annual report in 1934/35 that the work was carried out by white laborers in line with the policy of employing European labor only. These laborers, aged between 18 and 45 and unmarried, received a wage of two shillings per day, with a bonus of one shilling 6d per day worked.

An interesting aspect was that these bonuses were paid into a Post Office Savings Bank account, which the workers could only access after leaving the job. Payments to dependents could be made through a stop order. Around 800 men worked on the construction of the dam. However, despite efforts, the Department of Labour found it impossible to maintain the white labor force at the required strength in 1935, necessitating the employment of native laborers on certain sections of the project. Lewis attributed this shift to the increased prosperity of the country and the subsequent demand for labor.

In 1938, work on the superstructure of the Vaal Dam was completed, and a superintendent and small staff were appointed for maintenance purposes. On December 13, 1938, the dam overflowed for the first time, showcasing its full supply capacity of 994 million m3. Lewis highlighted in his report for the period 1938/39 that the dam’s usefulness as a regulator of the Vaal River flow had been amply demonstrated. Notably, it improved the reach between the dam and the Vaal-Hartz Weir by increasing the winter minimum flow and reducing the magnitude of floods.

During the construction of the Vaal Dam, a small village named Deneysville was founded in honor of Deneys Reitz, the Minister of Irrigation at the time.

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      VAAL HARTZ SCHEME

      The second component of the Vaal River Development Scheme, known as the Vaal-Hartz distribution works, was also constructed utilizing manual labor. Similar to the construction of the Vaal Dam, only single white males were employed for this project. Due to the extensive nature of the undertaking, modern machinery was also utilized to aid in the construction process.

      By the end of 1937, the Department of Lands settled 30 farmers on the scheme to cultivate and work the land. This number continued to grow, reaching 126 settlers by 1938. The year 1940 marked a significant milestone, with a total of 304 settlers establishing themselves on the scheme by March.

      The construction and development of the Vaal-Hartz distribution works played a crucial role in the overall success of the Vaal River Development Scheme. The concerted efforts of manual laborers and the use of modern machinery ensured the efficient implementation of this component. The settlement of farmers on the scheme further contributed to the agricultural and economic growth of the region.

      These developments not only provided employment opportunities but also laid the foundation for sustainable farming practices and land utilization. The Vaal-Hartz distribution works became an integral part of the broader scheme, facilitating the efficient distribution of water resources to support agricultural activities.

      The dedication and hard work of the laborers involved in the construction of the Vaal-Hartz distribution works were vital in turning this vision into a reality. Their efforts, combined with the settlement of farmers, formed the building blocks of a prosperous and thriving community within the Vaal River Development Scheme.

      The completion of the Vaal-Hartz distribution works marked yet another milestone in the comprehensive development of the region. It set the stage for continued growth, both in terms of agricultural productivity and the overall socio-economic landscape.

      The Vaal River Development Scheme stands as a testament to the determination and vision of those involved, creating a foundation for sustainable development and prosperity in the area. By harnessing the power of manual labor, modern machinery, and the settlement of farmers, this ambitious project laid the groundwork for a brighter future.

      After the conclusion of World War II, the exponential growth of industrial activity and the development of the Free State goldfields necessitated the expansion of the Vaal Dam to ensure an adequate water supply. The decision was made to raise the dam by 6.1 meters, which involved increasing the concrete over-spill crest by 3.05 meters and installing 60 crest gates measuring 2.05 meters in height on top of the concrete. The earth embankment was also raised to accommodate the modifications.

      The project commenced in 1952 and was successfully completed in 1956. The raising of the dam increased its storage capacity to 2,330 million cubic meters, consequently raising the dependable yield to 1,029 million cubic meters per year. The cost of this extension amounted to R2.9 million. To enhance flood control measures, the gate height was increased by 1.82 meters by adding a bottom extension to the existing gates. Additionally, a pilot channel was proposed to be constructed through the saddle dam embankment.

      Situated on the Gauteng side of the Vaal River, the saddle dam required the installation of the pilot channel to prevent potential breaches during floods, which could cause significant damage to the undeveloped valley below the dam. Furthermore, foundation drainage was implemented to improve the stability of the dam wall itself. This involved the construction of a 600-meter-long foundation drainage tunnel with a vertical curtain of drainage holes drilled between the tunnel and the foundation line.

      The stability of the concrete wall was further reinforced through the installation of pre-stressed cables that reduced tensile stresses on the upstream face. A total of 320 cables were installed along the crest, positioned 2.8 meters from the upstream face, with each cable extending from the crest to a maximum depth of 25 meters below the foundation level. New hoisting structures and gear capable of raising the gates completely clear of the bridge deck were also put in place.

      In 1979, the Department of Water Affairs proposed a second raising of the dam wall by 3.05 meters, increasing the capacity of the Vaal Dam by 1,033.5 million cubic meters to a total of 3,364 million cubic meters. Of this, 1.1 meters was designated for supply storage and the remainder for flood storage. This expansion allowed for an additional 342 million cubic meters of water to be stored for consumption. The second raising was successfully completed in 1985.

      The flood attenuation capabilities of the dam were put to the test in February 1996 when the largest flood ever recorded at the Vaal Dam site occurred. With an inflow of over 4,700 cubic meters per second and the dam already at full capacity due to ample rainfall, the dam reached its maximum capacity on February 19, 1996. Only 194 million cubic meters of flood absorption capacity remained before the full inflow would have had to be released, potentially causing significant damage.

      During the period from December 15, 1995, to March 15, 1996, the estimated inflow volume into the dam was a staggering 7,605 million cubic meters, enough to fill the dam thrice over. The inflow peak was estimated to have a return period of 70 years, while the outflow peak had a return period of only 20 years. Presently, the Vaal Dam serves as the central storage reservoir for the Vaal River water supply system, which caters to the water needs of Gauteng and the surrounding areas.

      Sources:

      – Hydropolitical History of South Africa’s International River Basins (WRC Report No: 1220/1/04)
      – Rand Water – A Century of Excellence, 1903-2003 (Phil Bonner & Peter Lekgoathi)
      – www.randwater.co.za
      – www.dwa.gov.za
      – Lani van Vuuren
      – Gareth Williams-Wynn

      For further information, please visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaal_Dam.

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