Water for me, water for you, water for South Africa
“The Pongola River and its headwater is part of the critical 8% of South African landscapes that provide more than 50% of our country’s fresh water,” explains Christine Colvin, Senior Manager of WWF’s Freshwater Programme, who is supervising the project.
The Pongola River and catchment supplies a wide range of water users, including forestry, farmers (predominantly livestock, sugar cane and fruit), agri-industry, towns and rural communities. All are connected through this major South African water source that starts in the headwaters of the Enkangala Grasslands near Utrecht and Wakkerstroom, and ends in the Indian Ocean in Mozambique.
The headwaters are situated in an exceptionally high water yield landscape where WWF’s Freshwater and Enkangala Grasslands Projects are situated.
Apart from its priceless water value, Enkangala is a key biodiversity area, rich in rare plant and animal species. The Pongola headwaters are the last remaining breeding grounds of the endangered Yellow Fish and home to the critically endangered Southern Barred Minnow.
Despite their key status the headwaters are being threatened by unsustainable land use practices, including coal mining, which poses a severe water pollution problem.
To conserve the headwaters, a substantial number of commercial livestock farmers in the region, who farm sustainably as part of the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, have come together through the WWF Grasslands Programme – headed by Angus Burns. In partnership with WWF and their provincial conservation agencies they have achieved significant conservation objectives, including securing Protected Environment status for large tracts of privately owned land.
Downstream from the headwaters are many more farmers, including fruit and sugar cane farmers, sugar mills, agri-industry (such as Illovo Sugar) and many rural communities. A high percentage of financially impoverished people live in the Pongola catchment without water services or sanitation services. Many people still have to fetch their daily water from the river and use the bush or river as a toilet.
This puts them at risk to a range of water-borne diseases, including cholera and dysentery, and creates a situation where the river water can test for unacceptably high levels of fecal matter and E. coli bacteria.
Large sections of the Pongola catchment are also infested with alien vegetation, which absorbs vast quantities of water. Other sections of the catchment are overgrazed, which leads to topsoil being washed into the river, causing rapid silting of the dams downstream.
“To boost water quality and water security along the Pongola catchment, this project is engaging with landowners, local government, communities and agri-industry to assess the current management of water and threats to water security. From here we will pilot new approaches towards restoring and protecting this critical catchment and its environment,” says Colvin.
“At the same time we need to address better sanitation methods and look at introducing basic water filters and appropriate water treatment methods at the village or household scale.”
A positive starting point is that many of the commercial farmers are extremely willing to get together with their neighbouring communities upstream to discuss co-management of water resources, and to look at ways of improving farming methods, water and sanitation systems.
“It makes sense. The upstream water management practices directly impact on the water they receive, and hence on their wellbeing and livelihoods,” Colvin explains.
- A major new WWF Nedbank Green Trust project titled Water Security for Pongola is working with two million water users.
- The Pongola headwaters are part of the 8% of South African landscapes that provide more than 50% of our country’s fresh water.
- The Impala Water Users Association (WUA) in the Pongola catchment near the town of Pongola in northern KwaZulu-Natal has committed to working on the Water Security for Pongola project in partnership with the WWF Nedbank Green Trust.
- WUAs are self-financing cooperatives, predominantly comprising commercial farmers. The approximately 30 Impala WUA members are mainly sugar cane and export fruit farmers who are dependent on clean, high quality water. They farm downstream from several villages on the Pongola River, which affects their water supply and the quantity and quality of runoff into the local Bivane Dam. The members of the Impala WUA funded the construction of the R150million Bivane Dam.
- The Impala Water Users Association (WUA) is one of the first WUAs in South Africa to reach a level of institutional maturity and competence to enable it to actively engage in water resource management within its catchment area.
- A river starts out at its source or headwaters as a clean water system. Along its course it becomes increasingly polluted as a result of various factors including sewage, factory effluent, mining effluent, and human and livestock faeces.
- The Enkangala Grasslands Project is part of WWF-SA’s Grassland Programme, which is managed by Angus Burns who has worked hard to secure 45 787ha of the Pongola headwater region as a Protected Environment. Another 40 000ha are in the pipeline for proclamation in 2014, known as the Upper Pongola Biodiversity Initiative. The majority of land is privately and communally owned and farmed sustainably by livestock farmers.
- Sustainable livestock farming is highly compatible with grassland and wetland health.