Turning the green alien tide

25 July 2002

Thousands of warriors are waging war on an amorphous mass of aliens. The aliens multiply like wildfire, intent on engulfing everything in their midst. The warriors’ biceps glisten with sweat as they relentlessly hack the aliens to death but they keep growing, faster and faster, until .

Sounds like the scene of a sci-fi movie? Working for Water, an award-winning project that employs thousands of people to clear away alien vegetation every day, may be less glamorous and not quite as racy as the latest futuristic thriller. It will however leave behind a far greater legacy – a healthier planet less depleted of water and other natural resources.

Alien species wreak havoc on our world, chomping our natural resources and destroying our biodiversity. Working for Water is the government’s highly successful response to the multiple problems arising from alien invasions.

The seven-year-old project, under the lead agency of the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry, continues to grow from strength to strength, employing 18 000 people (who would otherwise be jobless) to chop down and clear invading alien species, including Wattle, Gums, Pines, Hakea, Triffid Weed . the list goes on.

Many of these invasive species consume vast quantities of water, thus depleting our precious supplies. They also fuel devastating fires, which can destroy our indigenous species, and cause millions of rands in damage.

From Working for Water's Weedbuster comic
From Working for Water’s Weedbuster comic

Enter chief warrior, Guy Preston. He is Working for Water’s national programme manager. Working for Water is the biggest conservation endeavour on the continent and the largest invasive species operation (relative to GDP) in the world.

Preston is also a member of the Global Invasive Species Programme, an international initiative that promotes efforts around the world to stop the spread of invasive species and curtail the havoc they wreak.

In Preston’s view, the size of the environmental headache created by the onward march of alien species is potentially second only to global warming as an environmental crisis in the offing. “If we don’t contain invasive species the economic implications will be massive,” he says.

According to the United States government, invasive alien species have effectively wiped out four percent of global GDP. This is two-and-a-half times Africa’s combined GDP. After habitat destruction by humans, invasives are the second biggest potential cause of species extinction in the world.

Working for Water, which has a budget of R450-million for this year alone, intersects with a range of government departments. “We are working towards an integrated approach – a one-stop-shop to deal with the problem of invasives.”

This entails not only clearing away aliens, but developing education and awareness campaigns, conducting research, introducing stricter control measures at airports, ports and other border posts and devising a solid legal framework. New regulations under the Department of Agriculture’s Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act have been promulgated to curb the influx of invasive alien species.

Preston explains that invading alien plants destroy the productive potential of land, contributing to poverty, unemployment and social problems. The march of Triffid Weed in the eastern, coastal areas of South Africa is but one very worrying example.

Alien species altogether are estimated to consume 3 300 million cubic metres of water, which amounts to seven percent of South Africa’s annual run-off. Our indigenous plants in the fynbos areas, Karoo and grasslands, for example, have a much lower biomass and consume less water. The frightening figures for wasted water exclude the vast amounts of groundwater soaked up by aliens or the water consumed by fresh-water weeds like the water hyacinth.

Another major problem is fires. Many invasive alien form a highly combustible mass. The result is the intense fires that sweep across the Western Cape with frightening regularity. Invasives can burn with 10 times the heat of indigenous plants, destroying the latter’s seeds. Their own seeds survive, however, and as a result aliens usually sprout thicker than before on land devastated by fires.

“Every fire means worse fires in the years to come,” says Preston. Fires can cause tens of millions of rands in damage. A fire that broke out in the southern Cape two years ago killed five Working for Water employees.

The fight against these tough aliens appears to be a battle of epic proportions. “It isn’t a losing battle,” says Preston. “It is a hugely formidable task. But we can show you vast areas that have been rehabilitated. In the past seven years we have cut down over six billion invading alien plants. We are talking of a truly severe threat if we don’t get on top of things.”

For example, a lightly infested hectare of land could cost about R100 to clear, whereas the same land left for the next 15 years, would cost 40 times as much to clear.

“We have no choice. In the past seven years we have just been trying to plug the holes. We have not yet started baling out the water from the ship.”

A crucial step, adds Preston, is to educate people about the need to stop the spread of alien species. Working for Water’s sibling Santam/Cape Argus Ukuvuka Campaign has cleared alien species from 78 percent of state land around the Table Mountain area, but only 21 percent of private land in this region has been rid of alien species.

“We have to find ways of ensuring that private land-owners are accountable for what happens on their land. The consequences of the neglect are unaffordable, as the invading alien plants will attack neighbours’ land, to everyone’s detriment,” says Preston.

Working for Water has a toll-free number (0800-005-376) to advise land-owners and other concerned people on what to do.

Philippa Garson has written for over a decade, on a range of issues, for some of the country’s leading newspapers. The former editor of The Teacher, the national newspaper of the education profession, she was named South Africa’s Education Journalist of the Year in 1996.

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