Vaal River

Last updated
Vaal / ǀHai
Lekwa, IliKwa
The ǀHaiǃarib seen from the N3 national freeway, upstream from the Vaal Dam. Here it forms the border between the Mpumalanga and Free State provinces.
South Africa relief location map.svg
Red pog.svg
Location of the Vaal River mouth
EtymologyǀHai "Pale" + ǃArib "River"
Native nameǀHaiǃarib
Country South Africa
Region Free State, Gauteng, Northern Cape, Mpumalanga
Physical characteristics
  locationNear Breyten
Mouth Orange River
Near Douglas
29°4′15″S23°38′10″E / 29.07083°S 23.63611°E / -29.07083; 23.63611 Coordinates: 29°4′15″S23°38′10″E / 29.07083°S 23.63611°E / -29.07083; 23.63611
1,241 m (4,072 ft)
Length1,120 km (700 mi)
Basin size196,438 km2 (75,845 sq mi)
  location Orange River
  average125 m3/s (4,400 cu ft/s)
Basin features
  left Vet River

The Vaal River ( /ˈvɑːl/ Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈfɑːl] ; Khoemana: ǀHaiǃarib) is the largest tributary of the Orange River in South Africa. The river has its source near Breyten in Mpumalanga province, east of Johannesburg and about 30 kilometres (19 mi) north of Ermelo and only about 240 kilometres (150 mi) from the Indian Ocean. [1] It then flows westwards to its conjunction with the Orange River southwest of Kimberley in the Northern Cape. It is 1,120 kilometres (700 mi) long, and forms the border between Mpumalanga, Gauteng and North West Province on its north bank, and the Free State on its south.


It is the third largest river in South Africa after the Orange River (2200 km long) and the Limpopo River (1750 km long) and was established as the main source of water for the great Witswatersrand area after the gold rush during the 19th century. [2] The Vaal Dam lies on the Vaal River in Deneysville just south of the border between Gauteng and the Free State.

Vaal is a Dutch name (later Afrikaans), translated by the Griquas or Boers [3] from an earlier Kora Khoekhoe or !Orakobab name, sometimes spelled as Tky-Gariep (in Khoekhoegowab orthography it is ǀHai!garib, drab river). [4] Both Vaal and Tky (in modern orthography ǀHai) mean "drab" or "dull", which alludes to the colour of the waters, especially noticeable during flood season when the river is laden with silt. In the upper reaches the river was named iLigwa (Sindebele), Ikwa (isiZulu), ilikwa (siSwati), lekwa (Sesotho), or cuoa by the Khoikhoi, all referring to the plain it traverses. [4]


Pont (ferry) on the Vaal River SA1899 pg136 A Pont . Vaal River.jpg
Pont (ferry) on the Vaal River

Historically, the river formed the northern border of Moshoeshoe I's Basotho kingdom at its height[ citation needed ] in the mid-19th century, then became the boundary between two Boer republics: The South African Republic (later the Transvaal province) and the Orange Free State. The geographic name "Transvaal" comes from the name of this river, meaning "beyond the Vaal river". This was in respect to the Cape Colony and Natal, which were the main areas of European settlement at the time, and which lay south of the Vaal.

During the late 19th century, there was an influx of people migrating to the Witwatersrand in search for gold. The Vaal River would eventually become the main water source for the Witwatersrand. The growing population initially used water from the groundwater of the Zuurbekom Wells in Gauteng’s West Rand. Eventually these would dry up and people would need a new source that could provide for their domestic, agricultural and industrial activities. [5]

Water schemes were initially established by the private sector to deal with the growing demand. These included the Braamfontein Water Company's Vierfontein Syndicate of 1893 and the Sivewright Concession of 1887 by the Johannesburg Waterworks and Exploration Company. Water was expensive and largely inaccessible for most inhabitants. [6]

Rand Water Board

The Rand Water Board was established in 1903 to take over the operations of the private sector with a mandate to investigate sustainable water supply and sanitation services. The organisation would become fully operational in 1905, supplying water in bulk to the Witwatersrand. The organisation's members included officials from the Johannesburg Town Council, The Chamber of Mines and other local authorities within the Witwatersrand. [6]

Rand Water responded to water scarcity by imposing restrictions on Witwatersrand inhabitants in 1913. It also developed major water schemes that would respond to the growing demand. Between 1914 and 1998, the organisation partnered with various government and private entities to drive the Vaal River scheme and the barrage (1914–1924). The Vaal River scheme was an initiative established to manage water distribution. The Rand Water board also established the Vereeniging Pumping Station (1924), the Zwartkopjes Pumping Station, the Vaal Dam (1938), the Zuikerbosch Pumping Station (1949) and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project (1998). [6]

River Basin

Rain and underground water collects in pans, vleis and streams and where these connect, the westward flowing Vaal River is born. The river flows west into the Grootdraai Dam near Standerton, Mpumalanga. On its course to the Vaal Dam in Vereeniging, the river is joined by a number of tributaries. The Little Vaal River starts in an escarpment near Ermelo. Near Memel in the Free State is where the Klip River begins. The Watervals River begins in Secunda, Mpumalanga. The Wilge River used to meet the Vaal River before the Vaal Dam was built in 1938; now the water flows straight into the dam. [5]

Vaal Dam

A full Vaal Dam in 2010 Vaal Dam full 2010.jpg
A full Vaal Dam in 2010

Since the Vaal River's surface runoff is erratic, large dams have been built along its course to collect the water. In the past, before the river was established as the official source of water for part of the Gauteng area, several small dams were built by farmers for irrigation.

When the construction of the Vaal Dam was completed in 1938 ensure the supply of water throughout each year even when the river was not full. The dam would receive water from different catchment areas through various projects. [5]

Tugela-Vaal Transfer Scheme

Two water transfer schemes were developed to supply the economic heartland of the country (then recognised as the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging complex) by channeling water into the Vaal River from other catchment areas between the 1970s and 1990s. These include the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and Kwa-Zulu Natal’s Tugela-Vaal Water Transfer Scheme. [7] The Tugela-Vaal Transfer Scheme was completed in 1974 to transfer from the Tugela River in KwaZulu Natal via canals, pipelines and dams into the Vaal River system [5]

Lesotho Highlands Water Project

Lesotho Highlands Water Project map LHWP map resized.jpg
Lesotho Highlands Water Project map

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was finally launched in 1997 and would entail a three-phase construction that would augment water from Lesotho into the Vaal River, including four major dams. From 1954, the Natural Resources Development Council proposed that South Africa receive some water from its neighbouring Lesotho. Negotiations between the two countries started in the late 1970s. A treaty for the development of the scheme was signed on 24 October 1987 by representatives of Lesotho, South Africa, the European Union, United Nations and the World Bank. It was then estimated to cost R9.1 billion for the first phase of the project alone. [6]

South Africa pays R150 million to Lesotho each year whether they use all of the water that is supplied or not. [6]

Basin ecology

According to Hogan the headwaters portion of the basin supports high endemism in reptiles, and lower in the watershed are elevated levels of endemism for small mammals. [8]

Industry and agriculture

Water is drawn from the Vaal to meet the industrial needs of the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Area and a large part of the Free State. In 1881 the Kimberley Waterworks Company, provided water from the Vaal to the Cape Diamond Fields at a cost of one shilling per 100 imperial gallons (450 l; 120 US gal). [9] [10]

As a part of the Vaal-Hartz Scheme it is a major source of water for irrigation. Water drawn from the Vaal supports 12 million consumers in Gauteng and surrounding areas. [11]

Current uses

The majority of the Vaal River water upstream of the Vaal Dam is used for mining and industrial use such as coal mines and Sasol’s energy and chemical-related activities, as well as urban use and power generation. Further downstream of the dam, water is mostly dedicated to urban requirements and, although proportionally less, a considerable amount of this section is also used for mining and industries, irrigation and power generation. [12] The river regularly experiences pollution of its upper reaches, and this affects users downstream. During 2019 the Lekwa Local Municipality's main water treatment plant in Standerton was in disrepair and was causing chronic pollution problems. To assist users downstream, clean water had to be pumped into the river to dilute its high salt levels, thereby wasting a large quantity of this scarce resource. [13]


Vaal Dam at Deneysville Vaal Dam at Deneysville.jpg
Vaal Dam at Deneysville

The Vaal River is made up of 50 km of navigable water. The river basin thus offers a range of leisurely water activities that attract local and international tourists throughout the year. Activities include boating, yachting and water skiing.

Deneysville is a town on the Free State side of the Vaal River and is a popular water-centre where visitors can enjoy swimming, kiteboarding, yachting, boating, catamaran cruising, jet skiing, windsurfing, snorkeling and fishing.

See also

Related Research Articles

Orange River major river of southern Africa

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Transvaal (province) former province of South Africa

The Province of the Transvaal, commonly referred to as the Transvaal, was a province of South Africa from 1910 until 1994, when a new constitution subdivided it following the end of apartheid. The name "Transvaal" refers to the province's geographical location to the north of the Vaal River. Its capital was Pretoria, which was also the country's executive capital.

Gauteng Province of South Africa

Gauteng is one of the nine provinces of South Africa. The name in Sotho-Tswana means "place of gold."

The Vaal Triangle is a triangular area formed by Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark and Sasolburg about 60km south of Johannesburg, South Africa. The area forms a substantial urban complex. Meyerton, just north of Vereeniging, is also generally included in the complex, and residents of Sharpeville, Boipatong, Bophelong, the greater Sebokeng area, Heidelberg, Zamdela, Deneysville and Potchefstroom also generally tend to consider themselves to live in the Vaal Triangle. The area straddles the Vaal River and is a major industrial region, which is home to former Iron and Steel Corporation Iscor, now ArcelorMittal South Africa, and Sasol, the steel and petrochemical processing facilities.

Vaal Dam dam in Border Gauteng and Free State

The Vaal Dam in South Africa was constructed in 1938 and lies 77 km south of OR Tambo International Airport. The lake behind the dam wall has a surface area of about 320 square kilometres (120 sq mi) and is 47 meters deep. The Vaal Dam lies on the Vaal River, which is one of South Africa's strongest-flowing rivers. Other rivers flowing into the dam are the Wilge River, Klip River, Molspruit and Grootspruit. It has over 800 kilometres (500 mi) of shoreline and is South Africa's second biggest dam by area and the fourth largest by volume.

Vereeniging Place in Gauteng, South Africa

Vereeniging is a city located in the south of Gauteng province, South Africa, situated where the Klip River empties into the northern loop of the Vaal River. It is also one of the constituent parts of the Vaal Triangle region and was formerly situated in the Transvaal province. The name Vereeniging is derived from the Dutch word meaning "association" or "union".

Standerton Place in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Standerton is a large commercial and agricultural town lying on the banks of the Vaal River in Mpumalanga, South Africa, which specialises in cattle, dairy, maize and poultry farming. The town was established in 1876 and named after Boer leader Commandant A. H. Stander. During the First Boer War a British garrison in the town was besieged by the Boers for three months. General Jan Smuts won this seat during elections and went on to assist in setting up the League of Nations. Standerton is part of the Lekwa Local Municipality.

Highveld Natural region in South Africa

The Highveld is the portion of the South African inland plateau which has an altitude above roughly 1500 m, but below 2100 m, thus excluding the Lesotho mountain regions to the south-east of the Highveld. It is home to some of the country's most important commercial farming areas, as well as its largest concentration of metropolitan centres, especially the Gauteng conurbation, which accommodates one-third of South Africa's population.

R54 (South Africa) road in South Africa

The R54 is a provincial route in South Africa that connects Potchefstroom with Villiers via Vereeniging.

R82 (South Africa) road in South Africa

The R82 is a provincial route in South Africa that connects Johannesburg with Kroonstad via Vereeniging and Sasolburg. It starts just south of the M1 Johannesburg Municipal Highway's interchange with the N12 Southern Bypass, going south, meeting the R59, R54, R42 & R28 At Vereeniging before crossing the Vaal River into the Free State & proceeding to Kroonstad. It is an alternative, but longer route to the N1 National Route between Johannesburg & Kroonstad.

Lesotho Highlands Water Project

The Lesotho Highlands Water Project (LHWP) is an ongoing water supply project with a hydropower component, developed in partnership between the governments of Lesotho and South Africa. It comprises a system of several large dams and tunnels throughout Lesotho and delivers water to the Vaal River System in South Africa. In Lesotho, it involves the rivers Malibamatso, Matsoku, Senqunyane, and Senqu. It is Africa's largest water transfer scheme.

Sedibeng District Municipality District municipality in Gauteng, South Africa

Sedibeng is one of the districts of the Gauteng province of South Africa. The administrative seat of Sedibeng is Vereeniging. The most widely spoken language among its 794,605 inhabitants is Sesotho.

Sterkfontein Dam dam in Free State

The Sterkfontein Dam, located just outside the town of Harrismith, in the Free State, province of South Africa, is part of the Tugela-Vaal Water Project and the Drakensberg Pumped Storage Scheme, and located on the Nuwejaarspruit, a tributary of the Wilge River in the upper catchment area of the Vaal River. It is the second highest dam wall in South Africa and its highest earth fill dam.

The Vaal River Barrage Reservoir is a dam on the Vaal River near Vanderbijlpark, border Gauteng and Free State, South Africa.

Wilge River river in Free State, South Africa, tributary of Vaal River

The Wilge River is a tributary of the Vaal River in central South Africa. This river is important as part of the Tugela-Vaal Water Transfer Scheme where water is transferred from the Tugela River basin to the Vaal River basin.

Klip River river in South Africa

The Klip River is the main river draining the portion of Johannesburg south of the Witwatersrand, and its basin includes the Johannesburg CBD and Soweto. The mouth of the river is at Vereeniging where it empties into the Vaal River, which is a tributary to the Orange River. Besides Vereeniging, other towns along the river include Henley on Klip and Meyerton.

Rand Water

Rand Water previously known as the Rand Water Board is a South African water utility that supplies potable water to the Gauteng province and other areas of the country and is the largest water utility in Africa. The water is drawn from numerous sources and is purified and supplied to industry, mining and local municipalities and is also involved in sanitation of waste water.


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  4. 1 2 du Plessis, E.J. (1973). Suid-Afrikaanse berg- en riviername. Tafelberg-uitgewers, Cape Town. pp. 326, 221. ISBN   0-624-00273-X.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Water Origination". Home. Rand Water. 2019-02-07. Retrieved 2019-02-07.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Crooks, J. (2004). "Background / History of Rand Water". Home. Rand Water . Retrieved 2019-02-07.
  7. Rivers of South Africa. Manzi’s News. Accessed 31 March 2018.
  8. C. Michael Hogan. 2013. Vaal River. ed. P. Saundry. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and the Environment. Washington DC
  9. "The Kimberley Waterworks". The Cornishman (155). 30 June 1881. p. 6.
  10. "The Kimberley Waterworks". The Cornishman (156). 7 July 1881. p. 4.
  11. "State of the Environment of South Africa (SOESA), Annual National State of the Environment Report". Archived from the original on 2012-02-09. Retrieved 2012-02-26.
  12. Upper Vaal WMA: Overview of water resources availability and utilisation. Department of Water Affairs. Accessed 2 April 2018.
  13. Saba, Athandiwe (11 Nov 2019). "Tens of millions spent on repairs but sewage still flows in the Vaal". Mail&Guardian. Retrieved 22 November 2019.