The WRC was established in terms of the Water Research Act (Act No 34 of 1971), following a period of serious water shortage.
It was deemed to be of national importance to generate new knowledge and to promote the country's water research purposefully, owing to the view held that water would be one of South Africa's most limiting factors in the 21st century.
In 1971 when the WRC was founded, water research and development (R&D) in South Africa was limited to a few institutions and the funding level inadequate.
There was no research co-ordination and an apparent neglect of some key research fields. In addition, there was little strategic direction or leadership that would provide for the identification of priority areas or appropriate technology transfer. It was to address these issues, that the WRC was established.