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A journey to Enkangala in search of water's source

When the privileged among us open taps at home, we see clean water flowing freely and we often don’t think of its source –nature! While a lot of effort goes into ensuring that we receive clean water, much more work is required to protect the critical upstream landscapes that provide us with this priceless resource.

At the end of April, I went on a trip from Cape Town to Mpumalanga to witness and learn about the work some of my colleagues do with rural grasslands communities located in the remote water-producing landscape of the Enkangala Drakensberg region.

Enkangala landscape
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
The rolling landscapes of the Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area near Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga are beautiful.
My road-trip journey vs the journey of water

Those of us who are privileged to receive an adequate water supply in cities and towns only take a few steps to the kitchen tap to get fresh water. But the journey that water takes from its mountainous, steep source and across rolling landscapes to get to us is hundreds of kilometres in distance! Thanks to my visit to Donkerhoek between Dirkiesdorp and Piet Retief, as well as to Mooipoort and Zomerhoek near Wakkerstroom, I got to experience the journey of water up close. The Enkangala Drakensberg is one of South Africa’s 22 strategic water source areas. This important and rural landscape supplies water to parts of Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal and even Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

Grasslands road
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
Unpaved road to Donkerhoek village with the beautiful scenery of grasslands on each side.

After a day of travelling from the Mother City – two hours by air to Johannesburg and about four hours on the road – I was looking forward to meeting the communities over my three days in Mpumalanga.

My WWF colleagues Ayanda Cele and Nkazi Mafa hosted me and had a full itinerary planned – to attend fire training with the communities and visit a few of their farms.

Wetland (not clean)
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
A wetland on the way to Donkerhoek in Mpumalanga.
Getting closer to the source

On the first day, Nkazi and I headed to Donkerhoek village, and we spent more than two hours driving to our destination. The day was partly cloudy, and the temperatures were suitable for a day on the road. Although we were in the middle of nowhere on an unpaved and uneven road during much of the trip, the scenic views of the rolling landscapes with a somewhat green and dry carpet of grass made the journey pleasant. I don’t get to see this in the fynbos-rich landscapes of the Western Cape!

An hour from our destination, we spotted a silver line on the horizon. As we got closer, it became clear that it was in fact a dam! We stopped for photo and video opportunities at Heyshope, one of the dams supplying some water to Mpumalanga.

Encouraging sustainable farming practices

Since the Enkangala terrain is mostly grasslands, many of the communities in the area farm with livestock although some also plant crops. If managed well, the livestock will have plenty of nutritious grass to graze on. Nkazi explained that the upcoming winter looks promising because there was a lot of rain last summer. Around this time of the year, the grass is usually drier. The rivers we passed also had a good volume of water. This is good news for the livestock and people who depend on the local water resources in this area.

River in Mpumalanga
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
Heavy rains last summer resulted in a good volume of water flowing through the rivers in the Donkerhoek area.

The Donkerhoek community, which consists of eight Community Property Associations (CPAs) is new on the list of rural communities with which Nkazi and Ayanda work to support sustainable use of the rangelands. The communities we visited are part of WWF’s land reform and biodiversity stewardship   work that Ayanda and Nkazi run in this province and across some parts of northern KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Their work is to encourage, support and guide the rural farmers in following sustainable practices to keep their land in a healthy state. This will benefit and protect the critical species and crucial water resources in the landscape and for people downstream, for now and in the future.

Some of the activities that contribute towards this objective include implementing sustainable grazing and fire management plans, as well as eradicating alien invasive plants (mainly wattle trees).

Alien infestation
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
Donkerhoek is heavily infested by invasive fast-spreading wattle trees that suck up a lot of water.
Putting out fires to protect lives, livelihoods and nature

My last two days were filled with action!

The communities of Donkerhoek, Bambanani CPA from Zomerhoek, Sukumani Balimi CPA from Broederstroom and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya CPA from Mooipoort were being trained on how to manage veld fires. At Bambanani, three of the communities were gathered ready to learn. The participants, who were mostly youth (20 to 35 years old) were already in their fire protective gear. When extinguishing fires, the fighters must determine wind direction and speed, and fire behaviour and decide what is a suitable angle from which to approach the fire. They form a line and use their tools – fire beaters, rakes, sprinklers and so on – at the same time while moving forward, beating and sprinkling water on the fire. 

After practicing the hows and the whens of extinguishing blazing fires, their new skills were put to the test and they did not fail. They were all excited to receive their accredited training certificates in the end.

Ayanda and Nkazi explained that burning is good for the removal of dead grass and other moribund plant material, as well as for stimulating new grass growth. The opposite is true when burning is done too frequently. Fires affect the soil quality causing soil erosion and affect the water quality in rivers and wetlands. On the other hand, when the burning is planned and done properly, the soil remains stable and is able to absorb nutrients and store water.

In these communities, fires are often caused by careless disposal of cigarettes, sometimes by lightning strikes, and from fire-causing accidents in households within the community or neighbouring areas. These fires threaten lives, livestock and livelihoods. Equipping the remote grassland-living residents with fire management skills and relevant tools is imperative.

Training communities
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
Communities are learning and practicing veld fire management techniques to protect their livelihoods and the landscape they live in.
Farming for food and livelihoods

At the end of last year, Bambanani and Ukuthanda Ukukhanya farmers were among some of the communities who received seeds, seedlings and planting equipment to add to and improve their already existing gardens. My trip to Mpumalanga would have felt incomplete if we had not visited these vegetable farmers. In Ukuthanda Ukukhanya, we went to see Phumzile Msibi who showed us her two beautiful and enormous gardens where she plants carrots, spinach, beans, potatoes and cabbage. She plants to eat and sell, and she’s already making an income of over R80 000 per annum.

It was wonderful to see how Phumzile and other farmers are benefitting from committing to sustainable farming methods.

River in Mpumalanga
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
A small-scale farmer Phumzile Msibi from Ukuthanda Ukukhanya plants a variety of vegetables to eat and to earn income.

In these biodiversity-rich grasslands, Nkazi and Ayanda work closely with partners, including government agencies and departments, and businesses, to achieve their goals. But they always emphasise the significant role of communities and the funders who make these projects possible. The current intervention with Donkerhoek, Broederstroom, Mooipoort and Zomerhoek is funded by Coca-Cola Foundation and there are already a lot of activities under way. They will upskill these communities to implement alien invasive plant clearing, sound fire management and sustainable rangeland management plans. This work will contribute to ensuring improved and replenished water quality and quantity for all and conserving the true source of our water in this stunning corner of the country – the Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area.

Nkazi and Ayanda
© Dimpho Lephaila/WWF
Ayanda Cele (left) and Nkazi Mafa (right) work with communities in the rural grasslands of the high-altitude Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area.
Dimpho Lephaila Photo
Dimpho Lephaila, Communications Officer: Environmental Progamme

Dimpho is passionate about knowledge sharing and believes that it is through awareness and understanding that people can engage in sustainable practices.

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