Soweto wetlands return to life

6 December 2004

The frogs croak. The birds sing. And the plants grow so fast it seems they’re clinging to heaven. Life is slowly returning to Soweto’s once barren wetlands.

Residents of the sprawling township have Agnes Mtshali and her team of eco-warriors to thank. Since 1999, this Working for Wetlands team has been restoring the township’s once pristine wetlands to their former glory.

“Soweto has so many wetlands, but people don’t even know they exist”, says Mtshali, project manager of the Soweto Wetland Rehabilitation Programme, which has already rehabilitated the wetland areas surrounding Thokoza Park and Moroka Dam.

“Many of Soweto’s wetlands are in a shocking state”, Mtshali says. “The pollution is incredible. People still use them as a dumping ground for their building material. We even find dead animals in the water.”

Wetlands are literally defined as “any wet land”, and include mountain springs, vleis and lakes. They are among the earth’s most productive ecosystems because of the huge variety of plants and animals they support.

Mtshali says wetlands act as the earth’s natural water reservoirs, as they store and purify water, control erosion and recharge groundwater. But this is a message that many residents of Soweto did not want to hear when the project first started in 1999.

“We had a hell of a lot of problems. No one knew what a wetland was and didn’t understand how it would benefit them to conserve it – that it saves their water supply in the long run.

“We explained the functions of wetlands, but the residents insisted we cut down the reeds in the wetlands as they believed that criminals hid in them”, Mtshali says. “Many people in Soweto just see a wetland as an empty piece of land where they can plough mielies or graze their cattle.”

Mtshali grimaces as she peers over the eroded gulleys of the Baileyspruit, opposite the Old Potchefstroom Road in Soweto. The wetland ultimately flows into the Klipriver – itself a notoriously dirty river system.

This wetland, like many others in the township, has been neglected for years. And the chances for its survival appear slim. Clumps of rotting waste float in the murky depths of sections that have not yet been rehabilitated. And it continues to be polluted, despite the project’s cleanups.

While it seems as if the colourful façade of Orlando Power Park is standing guard over the meandering wetland, electricity pylons, grazing horses and the shacks and houses of Diepkloof and Orlando East surround its forlorn waterways.

Says Mtshali: “No one cared about fixing this wetland up until we started work on it last year. Then there was just erosion all over. But now the vegetation is growing and the birds are coming back. But it will take a long time. The wheels are turning slowly.”

And it’s not easy work to repair the damage. Around 15 workers groan and sweat as they lug huge rocks for a gabion structure, which is central to its facelift.

The powerful structure – made of rocks packed with wire – traps sediment like the endless streams of waste that pour into the wetland. The clean water flows under and through the rocks, raising the water levels to flow once more. The structures are located at several points along the wetland system.

Councillors in Soweto help find the workers for the project. Like the other workers, Sam Mpatha is clad in protective clothing from head to foot. Because of the pollution, workers cannot risk coming into contact with the fetid water.

Local children, he says, swim in the dirty wetlands. “It’s a health hazard as people continue to pollute these areas, even if they see we’re trying to fix them up.”

Although he struggles to live on R39 a day, Mpatha says the reward in his job is seeing life return to the wetland areas.

“It’s amazing to see the ducks swimming among the reeds. We know we are playing our part in protecting our wetlands”, he says. “These could be great places of tourism once they’re restored, as people will come from all over to see the rare species of birds and plants that live here.

“But when you tell people that water will be scarce by 2020 and that conserving wetlands will stop that from happening, they don’t listen. They can’t think that far ahead. Many of the people of Soweto are poor and are just interested in their daily survival.”

Mtshali says communities in Soweto are slowly starting to see – and reap – the benefits of safeguarding the township’s wetlands.

“They are allowed to harvest the wetland – but only once a year. People are making tables and chairs with the reeds and using the bulrushes to make placemats and baskets.”

The survival of the Baileyspruit wetland faces another threat, however: a new shopping mall is being constructed a few hundred metres away. “Those developers are moving closer and closer to the wetland”, says Mtshali, over the incessant roar of the bulldozers.

“Here we are trying to rehabilitate the wetland, but a mall is being built on its doorstep. This will result in more pollution and environmental damage. If we look after our wetlands, South Africa – and the world – will have more water and consumers will save money.”

South Africa has already lost half of its wetlands to human development, including artificial drainage in agriculture and pollution.

Mtshali looks out to the wetland, still scenic despite the pollution that surrounds it. “Forty years ago, this was a place where locals swam and fished. I think there are people who want it to be like that again. I often see residents sit here on the grass outside their houses, and stare at the wetland, just appreciating nature.”

Source: City of Johannesburg

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