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Design norms for soil and water conservation structures in the sugar industry of South Africa

Daniel Otim
Jeff Smithers
Aidan Senzanje
Rianto van Antwerpen


This paper contains a critical review of the norms employed in the design of soil and water conservation structures in the South African sugar industry and highlights research needs in order to update them. Sugarcane in South Africa is grown on wide-ranging soils, sometimes in non-ideal climates and on steep topographies where soils are vulnerable to erosion. A consequence of unsustainable soil loss is reduction in field production capacity. Sugarcane fields are protected against erosion through, inter alia, the use of engineered waterways, contour banks and spill-over roads. The South African Sugarcane Research Institute (SASRI), previously known as the South African Sugar Experiment Station (SASEX), developed a nomograph to easily compute the maximum width of field panels based on soil type, tillage method, replant method, surface structures to control runoff, surface cover and slope. This was followed by guidelines and norms for the design of soil and water conservation structures. However, the nomograph was developed based on an acceptable soil loss of 20 t·ha−1·yr−1, yet soil formation rates in South Africa range between 0.25 and 0.38 t·ha−1·yr−1. Comparisons between design norms in the National Soil Conservation Manual and norms used in the sugar industry clearly show discrepancies that need to be investigated. The design of soil conservation structures includes the design of both contour bank spacing and hydraulic capacity. The sustainable soil loss method is recommended in the design of contour spacing and it determines contour spacing based on evaluation of site-specific sheet and rill erosion potential of the planned contour spacing while the hydraulic design employs Manning’s equation. Considering that increases in both design rainfall and design floods are anticipated in South Africa, it is necessary to incorporate these projections in the design of soil and water conservation structures. Many soil loss models exist, of which empirical models are the most robust and provide stable performances. The majority of empirical models are lumped models which estimate average annual soil loss. The Modified Universal Soil Loss Equation (MUSLE) estimates event-based erosion and, given that the majority of soil erosion occurs during a few extreme events annually, the design norms should be updated using the MUSLE.

Keywords: contour banks, hydraulic, hydrologic, soil erosion, USLE, waterways

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1816-7950
print ISSN: 0378-4738