Millionaire golf estate sucks water

NEWS ANALYSIS

A vacant plot at the Blair Atholl Golf & Equestrian Estate starts at R1.5-million. A four-bedroom home goes for R20-million. The estate, north of Lanseria Airport in Gauteng, tells would-be owners that it offers “the unparalleled living experience”. Estate agents use the term “mansion” to describe the homes.

Seven kilometres of green golf course circle the 129 mansions that dot the estate. Green flows through the estate, from its advertising to the fairways, lawns and mini forests.

The golf course was designed by Gary Player on what used to be his family’s farm.

The Mail & Guardian has been reporting on its development since 2005, when an article ran under the headline “Developers ride roughshod over laws”. The developer, Wraypex, threatened to sue the paper.

The article argued that Blair Atholl would start a domino effect for other developments to be built in what is an area zoned for agriculture and conservation. It is an area that is not naturally green; but rather the yellow of thirsty grass and the brown of small, indigenous trees.

The Cradle of Humankind and the Rhenosterspruit Conservancy are nearby. Blair Atholl became a blueprint for how other mega-estates, such as Steyn City, could be built.

Wraypex sued four Rhenoster-spruit activists for R170-million for their public and private objections. The high court in Pretoria threw the case out, with costs. It said Wraypex’s attorneys had adopted a “belligerent style” and that the case amounted to “vexatious litigation”.

Central to the activists’ concerns was the effect the estate would have on water levels. The area around Blair Atholl is drier than the rest of Gauteng. Most plots rely on boreholes, and then are limited to 200 litres of water a day.

Banks refuse bonds for people to buy in the area; land without enough water is worthless. Unless, of course, you can build an estate on that land.

Blair Atholl got around the issue of water constraints when it built its own water pipeline and connected it to the Tshwane municipal system. In its 2015 water-use licence, which sets out how the estate interacts with water, permission was given to divert the Crocodile and Jukskei rivers “for golf cart crossings”, and to release treated sewage into the rivers. Water for the golf course would come from “treated sewage effluent”.

No permission was given for water to come from boreholes.

In September, residents in the surrounding area got notification that Blair Atholl wanted to amend that water licence to “ensure it reflects the current and future water uses at the estate”. Water from the two rivers would be used for irrigating the golf course while, for the mansions, water would come from boreholes.

The notice says that after “consultation” with the water and sanitation department, the estate decided “to review and update the water-use licence to address errors and omissions in the licence, and to bring it in line with the current activities at the estate”.

Read: Blair Atholl is doing things with water that it does not have permission to do.

In the domino-effect playbook, this is the next nudge to further development. The first was to get a foot in the door; by getting permission to develop in a dry area. Now, the estate wants to triple the number of homes and needs to get more water to do so.

When asked if Blair Atholl had illegally extracted water, the water and sanitation department said: “Yes. It was with regards to ground water extraction, which was stopped as it was not included in the water use licence.”

The department had talked to the estate and advised it to apply for an amendment to its licence. This would also include a review of water use from other sources, like rivers. Blair Atholl was created by consolidating several farms.

This meant that the estate inherited their water allocations. Thanks to the R170-million lawsuit, residents outside of Blair Atholl are skittish, giving the M&G information and correspondence but not being willing to talk in public.

Across WhatsApp and Facebook groups, a bitter war of words is being fought between people in the estate and those on the outside.

A person outside the estate said the water table for their borehole has dropped 2m in the last three years. People in the estate respond with complaints about these issues not being handled in a closed forum.

These sorts of conversations will feed into the information that is given to justify an updated water-use licence. The water and sanitation department will then have to decide whether to give permission for the estate to pump scarce water on to its golf course, and into the mansions of its residents.


The developer responds

Blair Atholl’s consultant respon­ded to M&G questions with minutes from the October 8 community meeting.

In this, they say that an external complaint was lodged with the water and sanitation department in 2017, “regarding illegal drilling of boreholes within the Blair Atholl Estate”.

The department then sent a letter to the estate, telling it to stop all drilling and extraction of water. The Blair Atholl Home Owners Association — which has taken over operation from Wraypex — subsequently told residents to “stop all abstraction until such a time as the licence allows for it”.

The estate then started the process to review and update its water licence. This will include studies to see how much water the estate can remove from boreholes. This water will only be used by residents.

In the minutes, neighbours also raise concerns about the quality of water released from the estate’s sewerage treatment plant. The consultants say that the water and sanitation department conducted an inspection of the plant “after the last incident”, but there has been no feedback.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.
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