Original Research

A tale of two towns: Water provision and management in the towns of Beaufort West and Vanrhynsdorp, c. 1900–1970

Wessel P. Visser, Daniel R. Rademan
New Contree | Vol 91 | a252 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/nc.v91i0.252 | © 2024 Wessel P. Visser, Daniel R. Rademan | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 03 August 2023 | Published: 26 February 2024

About the author(s)

Wessel P. Visser, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa
Daniel R. Rademan, Department of History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa


The Karoo region of South Africa receives some of the lowest annual precipitation in South Africa. The towns of Beaufort West and Vanrhynsdorp share a history of unreliable water supplies, coupled with extreme poverty that left a large section of the population of these towns with little to no access to safe water and sanitation infrastructure. Vanrhynsdorp and Beaufort West had low populations and limited permanent infrastructure during the 19th century. As the 20th century progressed, agricultural market price drops, droughts, the opening of railway lines and the promise of better living conditions spurred on by local business pushed larger numbers of people towards the rural towns. This led to the rapid expansion of populations in rural towns that lacked the financial and practical means to accommodate the rising need for larger permanent water sources and supply infrastructure (often in the form of groundwater). This article will compare how Beaufort West and Vanrhynsdorp developed divergent water provision systems between 1900 and 1970. These two case studies represent a glimpse into the history of water provision struggles of towns in the arid interior during the first half of the 20th century.

Contribution: This article focusses on South African water history, and specifically on the problematics of water procurement to towns and communities in the arid Karoo region amid failing water infrastructure and recurring droughts. It augments the historical knowledge on strategies to provide water to rural communities under conditions of duress. The article falls within the scope of New Contree’s scientific focus as it throws more light on the historical infrastructure challenges that two rural communities faced and what strategies they have implemented to overcome such challenges.


droughts; Springfontein Dam; railways; water provision; Gamka Dam; Troe Troe River; private boreholes; sanitation; rainwater tanks; municipal council.

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 6: Clean water and sanitation


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