Growing better barley, more sustainably

A leap of faith

Keeping the water flowing to South Africa’s hops

A partnership between private and public sectors is tackling a growing water shortage in the hop-growing region of South Africa

A one-hour flight from Cape Town lies the South African city of George, situated between the Outeniqua Mountains to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The Outeniqua Mountains form a range that runs alongside South Africa’s famous Garden Route, so-called because of its rich, green and varied vegetation commonly known as ‘fynbos’. This is an Afrikaans name for the small, slender leaves that characterise many of the thousands of fynbos plant species that grow in the mountainous areas of the Western Cape. 

The region’s varying conditions creates diverse habitats. Hops, vital ingredients for beer making, are normally grown in the moderate climates of the northern hemisphere. However, a small group of hop farms established in the foothills of Outeniqua near George in the late 1930s, is internationally recognised as a world-class hops supplier and is the only hops industry to be successful at low latitudes.

These farms have long supplied our local business, The South African Breweries (SAB), which also owns three of the farms. This saves considerable sums of money by not having to import hops from overseas. However, the crops we grow and the beers we brew are fundamentally dependent on the availability of good quality water, so in 2009 SAB entered into the Water Futures Partnership with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the German Federal Enterprise for International Cooperation (GIZ) with a view to taking a leadership position in corporate stewardship of water resources.

As part of this journey, SAB was one of the first companies to undertake a comprehensive study into its water footprint (the amount of fresh water used as a company), which found that almost 85% of SAB’s water footprint lies in the local production of crops such as barley, maize and hops. Based on this, and the precarious nature of water availability in the hops growing area, it was decided to initiate a pilot water stewardship project. 

Hop-growing requires around 10,000 m3 of water per hectare each year, the equivalent of four Olympic swimming pools. The hop farms in the George area cultivate a total of 483 hectares, creating an annual water requirement of around 5 million m3, of which just under half has to be delivered via irrigation. During recent droughts the hop farmers have come precariously close to running out of water for irrigation.


The project found three significant factors that impacted water availability in the area.

  • Invasive alien trees, mainly hakea and black wattle from Australia and pine trees from Europe form the most serious threat to water supplies, as they are much thirstier than native trees. Analysis concluded that the alien trees in the area of the hop farms are using up around 3 million m3 of water each year – and their total local area footprint is increasing by around 5% each year. In some areas, the alien species have completely overwhelmed native trees. Not only do they soak up excessive amounts of water, the concentrated presence of alien trees greatly increases the risk of fires during the hot winter months. Each fire destroys trees and vegetation, increasing the amount of water run-off, which in turn degrades the soil through erosion, and silts up already-shallow water dams with sediment.
  • Changes in climate mean the area is expected to see a 10% drop in rainfall over the next 40 years and greater seasonal variability in rainfall patterns. An increase in the frequency and size of fires in the area has also been linked to rising temperatures, with a forecast of an average 0.7-0.8 degrees increase during the hop-growing season by 2050. In addition to the fire risk, rising temperatures will cause increased evaporation from stored surface water, which each year already loses 25% of its volume to evaporation.
  • The socio-economic element of the risk analysis concluded that the water requirements of the two nearest towns, Oudtshoorn and Dysseldorp, will increase over time as they develop, and will start to compete with the needs of local agriculture. Local authorities are increasingly drilling boreholes into the local aquifer (porous underground rock containing water) for residential water use.

In response, the partnership devised a three-pronged strategy.

  • Remove alien trees from the locality over 15 years, clearing the equivalent of 2,800 hectares. This would also have the socio-economic benefit of providing around 46,000 days of work for local seasonal labourers.
  • Establish full, long-term scientific capture and analysis of water data in the area, with farmers using data loggers deployed in groundwater boreholes and dams.
  • Improve water efficiency at all the hop farms, by: using more efficient irrigation systems; training farm labourers to spot and deal with water pipe leaks; deploying soil moisture probes to prevent over-irrigation; and improving the local surface drainage systems to reduce erosion and sediment build-up. Where practicable, the hop farmers would be encouraged to create water structures that would divert surface water into underground aquifers, eliminating evaporation loss. The project estimated that these farm-level measures alone could realistically reduce water use by 35%.

After much planning, the project to remove the alien trees is about to begin; the capture and analysis of water data has begun with 20 water level loggers now in place; more efficient drip irrigation systems have been introduced on farms; and farm labourers have received training.

SAB is playing a leading role in water stewardship within South Africa, operationalising key aspects at all important levels.
Christine Colvin |Senior Manager: WWF Freshwater Programme

“SAB is exploring water risks within its supply chain and investing in water stewardship in the truest sense by encouraging and enabling its suppliers to reduce their water risk and water impacts. This is an area where WWF in South Africa has collaborated very closely with SAB and we are proud of the leading work we are achieving together with hops farmers in the George area.”

Related stories