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The Pongola Floodplain, South Africa – Part 1: Two-dimensional hydrodynamic modelling in support of an environmental flows assessment

A.L. Birkhead, C.A. Brown, A.R. Joubert, A Singh, T Tlou


The Pongola Floodplain in the Makhathini Flats is an area of low topographic relief between the 1973-commissioned Jozini Dam, and the Usuthu River which borders Mozambique. the floodplain system is characterised by a complex mosaic of meandering river channels, levees, and floodplains interspersed with pans (or depressions) and wetlands. The landmark 1982 study of the floodplain, Man and the Pongolo Floodplain, suggested a pattern of flows to ‘maintain the floodplain’ based on socio-ecological criteria. Since 1998, however, annual releases have been primarily targeted at the needs of recession agriculture and inundation of the floodplain in the Ndumu Reserve. No releases have been specifically aimed at maintaining the floodplain ecosystem and the services it delivers to support the livelihoods of local communities. In 2013, the Department of Water and Sanitation
commissioned an Ecological Reserve study of the Usuthu/Mhlatuze Water Management Area, which incorporates the Pongola Floodplain. This paper describes two-dimensional hydrodynamic modelling using RMA2 to inform this flow assessment. Four computational Pongola Floodplain models have been developed since 1979, including cell-based, one- and two-dimensional approaches. The RMA2 model is based on existing topographical, hydrological and hydraulic information, and was calibrated and verified for the period 2008 to 2010 using water-level data from the local hydrometric monitoring network. Generally, good replications have been achieved in terms of peaks, rising and recession limbs, recession of ponded pan water-levels, and low- flow river stages. The RMA2 modelling represents an advancement of previous hydrodynamic studies of the floodplain and contributes to an improved understanding of its hydraulic behaviour. Model application was for the 15-year period 1990 to 2004, and simulations included naturalised, present management (2014), and 7 potential dam operational scenarios. The results were post-processed for analyses in the DRIFT DSS, described in the companion paper.

Keywords: Pongola Floodplain, Jozini Dam, two-dimensional hydrodynamic modelling, RMA2, environmental flows, Makhathini Flats, Ndumu Reserve

AJOL African Journals Online