Keeping the water balance

[Image] The removal of alien plant species such as the Australian black wattle improves the health of the ecosystem and prevents the loss of water to the thirsty invaders.

[Image] WWF-SA’s Enkangala Grasslands project coordinator Angus Burns works closely with farmers in the area to clear away black wattle.

[Image] Nedbank has facilitated the distribution of over 1 000 Hippo rollers to communities in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape.

[Image] South Africa’s national bird, the blue crane, breeds in the Enkangala grasslands.
(Images: Janine Erasmus)

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Janine Erasmus

South Africa is one of many countries that face challenges in maintaining and preserving its freshwater supply. In its 2012 Global Risk Report, the World Economic Forum names a water supply crisis as the risk, out of 50 analysed, which would have the second greatest impact globally. Top of the list was a major failure of the world’s financial system.

However, the likelihood of a water crisis is greater than that of a financial systems failure – 3.79 as opposed to 3.14, on a scale of one to five.

The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) has estimated that, based on the current water usage and population growth, the country will have a water shortfall of 1.7% by 2025 – unless we act now.

But that action must balance conservation with industry, because while the former is unquestionably important for the future preservation of the planet, industry too plays a vital role as a driver of economic growth.

Water security is no longer a matter of building more dams, because the country is already running out of suitable locations. Rather, the key factor is the conservation, maintenance and rehabilitation of South Africa’s natural water sources. This is the responsibility of all water users in the country.

Industry is not the only problem. Conservationists are fighting a constant battle against invasion by alien plant species. One of the most destructive is the black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), an Australian native. It was introduced to South Africa in the late 19th century, and since then has become one of the most widespread invaders.

WWF-SA’S water balance programme seeks to address these challenges by getting landowners and businesses alike to commit to the preservation of water resources. Not just by signing on a line, though – by active stewardship, accountability and forward thinking, while keeping their businesses and incomes intact.

Irreplaceable resource

“12% of our country’s land area generates half of our river flow,” says Angus Burns, coordinator for WWF-SA’s Enkangala Grasslands project.

Spanning the Mpumalanga, Free State and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, Enkangala lies within the grasslands biome, the country’s largest biome according to WWF-SA.

Enkangala covers 1.6-million hectares and with an average annual rainfall of twice that of the rest of the country, is a vital water catchment area that supplies the whole of Gauteng province as well as several coal power stations in the east of the country.

It’s also the source of four of South Africa’s major rivers – the Vaal, Thukela, Usutu and Pongola and as such, is a priority area under the WWF-SA water balance programme. The other priority nodes are the Berg and Breede catchments in the Western Cape; the Garden Route in the Western Cape; and the Umgeni in KwaZulu Natal.

Sitting at 1 700 metres above sea level, Enkangala (isiZulu, meaning “high place without trees”) is a sensitive ecological grassland which also provides employment through agriculture and, to a more limited extent, mining and timber.

While much of the area has been irreversibly transformed through these activities, there is still a chance of preserving the rest through responsible farming, removal of alien vegetation and community education.

The Enkangala Grassland Project launched about 11 years ago in Wakkerstroom, a small Mpumalanga town world-renowned for its birding. The area is also dotted with wetlands which need special management.

The project focuses on reducing water loss through removal of alien plants, reviving and preserving aquatic ecosystems, and creating jobs. The removal of alien plants has many benefits, including an increase in water flow for rivers, a decrease in fire hazard and soil erosion, the normalisation of the natural ecosystem, and more water for indigenous plants.

The project also has a stewardship component which works with land reform communities to responsibly manage their newly-regained land.

“We work hard to build a relationship of trust with the communities, and teach them to live in harmony with nature,” says Ayanda Nzimande, WWF-SA’s biodiversity stewardship officer for land reform and emerging farmers. “We also help them to deal with small mining companies who are interested in prospecting on their land.”

The three current participants in the water balance programme are Nedbank, chipboard manufacturer Sonae Novobord, and retailer Woolworths, with support from the Department of Water Affairs, while the Green Trust, Birdlife South Africa and the South African National Biodiversity Institute are involved in the Enkangala initiative.

“We also work with the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency,” says Burns, “who have been incredibly helpful. It’s completely in their interest to support our project, as it contributes to their target for conserved land, which they could never afford to buy – and this way they don’t have to pay for land management either. It’s the best solution.”

Landowners in the area are reportedly queuing up to be part of the programme, but, says Burns, the organisation can only work with the top properties.

Within Enkangala, the 30 000-hectare KwaMandlangampisi (isiZulu, meaning “place of the hyena”) Protected Environment extends from Wakkerstroom to the farming community of Luneberg. It is the breeding place of South Africa’s national bird, the elegant but vulnerable blue crane (Anthropoides paradiseus), and is home to numerous endemic species of fauna and flora, one of which, an aloe, is found nowhere else.

KwaMandlangampisi was declared in 2010 as the country’s first protected environment, which means that it can’t be threatened by activities such as mining. According to WWF-SA, a protected environment is one level below a national or provincial nature reserve.

The green bank

Nedbank has supported the water balance programme since August 2011, and will invest in it to the tune of R9-million (US$1-million) over a five-year period. In Enkangala, 131 hectares have been cleared of black wattle in the last year alone, as a result of the bank’s investment, meaning that 271 000 kilolitres of water have been saved from consumption by the thirsty alien.

The bank’s involvement has created over 12 350 person-days of work, produced 298 tons of charcoal and 345 tons of wood pulp, and supported the work of five dedicated farmers.

Elsewhere, there is more progress. In the Keurbooms catchment area of the Garden Route, farmers are preparing to clear 76 hectares of alien plants.

In the Umgeni area, Nedbank has partnered with the US-based Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund to raise an investment of R1.6-million ($185 000)  for the water balance programme.

“This project demonstrates our increased focus on water as a key part of our climate change response strategy,” says Brigitte Burnett, Nedbank’s head of sustainability. The bank aims to offset its annual water consumption of some 550 000 kilolitres by helping with the removal of alien vegetation in these sensitive areas.

Nedbank’s other water-related projects include the Riparian Rehabilitation Project in the Kouga River catchment area and the flood simulation project for the Pongola floodplain.

The Nedbank Foundation has also come to the aid of rural communities who have no access to clean tap water, by providing R4.6-million ($531 000) for the distribution of over 1 000 90-litre Hippo water rollers in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. The Hippo roller is a South African invention that makes it easier for people who get their water from a river to transport it over a distance.