What would you like to search for?

Restoring the Riviersonderend

The Riviersonderend catchment is where the 2019 Journey of Water is taking place. Here's why...

Riviersonderend palmiet
A healthy stand of palmiet in the Riviersonderend.


Although little known to the residents of metropolitan Cape Town, the Riviersonderend (or “river without end”) today is recognised as a critical river for the role it plays in the landscape.

It starts its life gushing peat-coloured water off the high peaks of the Hottentots-Holland before meandering some 125km downstream and joining up with the Breede River near Swellendam. This is part of the Boland Water Source Area, one of South Africa’s 22 strategic sources of water. 

Crucially, the Riviersonderend supplies Theewaterskloof – the largest dam in the Western Cape which holds 40% of Cape Town’s water supply and whose vast, emptying, sandy shores became the iconic image of the “Day Zero” drought.

Below the dam, the river slows and braids its way past farms and towns, including the town that bears its name. When it reaches its confluence, it delivers its second great eco-service to the region, a flush of freshwater which helps to reduce the salinity of the lower Breede River that labours under agricultural runoff and seawater intrusion.

Some say it was named the Zonderend River by the Dutch settlers because it is a tributary and does not reach the sea. But it also bears another name: Kamma-kan-kamma (or “water, never-ending water”). This is the name ascribed to it by its first bedfellows, the Hessequa whose cattle grazed here before the settlers arrived.

Thus, both a river without end and one that never runs out – but by 2012, the Riviersonderend was also a river under pressure.

That was the year that Japie Buckle (known as “Mr Wetlands” and a restoration ecologist with the Department of Environmental Affairs: Natural Resources Management) called on WWF to help. During a flight, he had spotted large tracts of palmiet wetlands below that were jostling with thirsty, invasive alien vegetation and perilously close to losing the battle.

“You’ve got to do something,” is what he said.

The Theewaterskloof Dam at the height of the drought during the summer of 2018.
A miraculous plant

Palmiet (so named because the settlers thought it was part palm, part reed) is an indigenous, semi-aquatic shrub that plays an almost miraculous role in Cape river ecology.

It stabilises river banks, slows floods, purifies the water with its thick, fibrous roots and acts as a giant sponge, releasing flow during the dry season and replenishing groundwater. And its wetlands are a haven for freshwater fish, frogs, mammals, insects and birds and importantly, in these times of climate change, store carbon dioxide.

Alien invasive vegetation, on the other hand, has none of these charms. Species such as pines, Port Jackson, blue gums and black wattle, crowd out indigenous vegetation, suck up water and their shady branches kill off the palmiet which then destabilises the river banks. Estimates are that 1.4 billion cubic metres of water are lost to alien plants in South Africa each year.

© WWF South Africa
Palmiet is an indigenous plant important for river ecology.
First Steps

After taking the call from “Mr Wetlands”, WWF’s Rodney February and Saskia Fourie went to visit the river. What they found was “wall-to-wall” invasive species in some parts but they also saw some hope.

“We agreed we would never walk away from a river. We just needed to persuade ‘Gords’,” says Rodney, using a nickname for his colleague Helen Stuart Gordon who was the next piece of the puzzle.

As the manager of WWF’s Water Balance Programme, Helen was working with corporates willing to invest money into invasive alien clearance on a piecemeal basis. At that stage, a new possibility was opening up in the form of state funding known as Land User Incentive Funding (LUI) through the Natural Resource Management (NRM) programme. This money was dependent on co-funding from landowners or corporates.

For the first year of the project in 2013, the WWF team spent their time mapping the area and meeting landowners, while Rodney (pictured below) weighed up the pros and cons of using government funding. In the meantime, Helen got permission from Nedbank to use money they had already committed to alien clearance as co-funding in an application to the NRM.

“That Nedbank money was catalytic,” says Helen. As soon as the first three-year tranche of LUI funding came through and clearing started, people in the area started to sit up and take notice.

Rodney February
Rodney February on the road in the early stages of the project.
A willing champion

Enter stage left, local vegetable farmer Ross Philip who was among those attending a meeting convened by the Zonderend Water Users Association (Z-WUA) to discuss the opportunities provided by potential funding for alien clearance.

Ross had run into the WWF team during their work in the area and shared their vision. He was not a newcomer to the concept of alien clearance; he had been active in the Klein Swartberg Conservancy close to Caledon and had also witnessed first-hand the exceptional qualities of palmiet in stabilising a river bank on his farm during a drought.

In the old days, says Ross, farmers erroneously believed palmiet was sucking up their water – “we tried to chop it, kill it, burn it, spray it” – but he’d come to realise that it was the best ecological drought buffer there was. And he’d also seen the steady march of alien vegetation in his valley and how this was damaging the palmiet.

At this meeting, he made an impassioned speech for buy-in to the project, urging his fellow farmers to seize the opportunity being offered to them through the co-funding scheme.

Helen recalls him saying “We are being thrown a fish here. We would be stupid not to stand up and catch it.”

Ross says he’d used that metaphor because he’d just spotted a joke on an Ocean Basket menu asking “What’s the best way to catch a fish?” The answer? “Have somebody throw it at you.”

The Genadendal Nursery works to restore landscapes.
Time to pass the baton

Over time, WWF’s intention was to hand over the responsibility for the project to those most intimately affected by the health of the river, like the Z-WUA.

“We’d gone from the project being WWF-initiated, owned and run to saying: ‘This is your river – why don’t you take the project and we will support you with additional private sector funding?’” explains Helen.

Thus, at the end of 2017, WWF helped Z-WUA to apply successfully for a second tranche of NRM funding and proposed that they employ somebody full time to take ownership of the work. In February 2018, that person became Lana du Toit well-versed in what was needed from her experience in Working for Wetlands.

In the interim, although there were delays in the NRM funding, WWF provided bridging funds to keep the work going, including at a small nursery in Genadendal (pictured above) where palmiet and other indigenous plants are being cultivated for restoration work.

This same nursery is now in the process of being established as an SMME which, if all the plans come together, will become an independent small business selling indigenous plants to local landowners. There are other opportunities here too for turning the biomass (enviro-speak for alien wood) into products like biochar and mulch.

Rodney on raft
Rodney February tests a makeshift raft on the river.
Innovations and inventions

Aside from organising clearance, Lana speaks with enthusiasm about the restoration work being planned alongside the alien clearance. This work includes “search-and-rescue” to remove indigenous plants from areas where building works are being done to stabilise river banks. These plants are literally “nursed” for a year until they can be replanted in the same place, thereby further supporting the built infrastructure.

She is also actively involved in researching the most suitable indigenous vegetation for specific areas and in pioneering techniques like making use of plant communities of four or five species together to re-establish an area more quickly.

Next year, the plan is to continue experimenting with using fire as a tool to speed up alien clearance on some islands in the river, an idea that Rodney has also been toying with.

The scientific name for palmiet (Prionium serratum in Greek) literally means “saw tooth” giving another clue to its nature.

Rodney says: “Palmiet cuts you, it bites you, it’s difficult to walk through, but it is also an amazing, adaptive plant found nowhere else in the world.”

Over the years, he has come up with many innovations for navigating the tricky palmiet which can make work painfully slow and drives up costs – his inventions have included ziplining across rivers to building “madala” platforms (or “old man” platforms) and rafts.

Into the future

If you ask Rodney, Helen and Lana why the Riviersonderend has spoken to them so strongly during the life of the project, they answer with one voice: “It’s a beautiful river that can still be saved.”

And Ross, whose livelihood is growing vegetables and rearing cattle and chickens in this valley, says he has come to realise that it is a task that, like the river, will never end, although he is seeing visible benefits already.

Thus far, the Riviersonderend Restoration project has seen 11 landowners contribute financially and has provided employment for 84 people (including six clearing teams and the nursery/restoration team). It has also generated numerous collaborations with funders like Nedbank, the Western Cape government’s Landcare, retailers such as Woolworths who source vegetables in the valley, organisations like the Breede Gouritz Catchment Management Agency who provided funding for restoration work and the Z-WUA which has employed Lana.

Now, the dream is to scale up even more, to expand the circle and to multiply the power of collective action through Water Source Partnerships.

And, underlying it all, like the meandering course of the river itself, is the ideal of restoring the full length of the Riviersonderend – from its mountain peaks to its confluence and even beyond to Witsand where, together with its Big Boet the Breede, it runs into the sea.

Riviersonderend river map
© Wikipedia
The Riviersonderend is a tributary of the Breede River.
5 key lessons from Restoring the Riviersonderend

  1. The private sector funding, in this instance from Nedbank, gave vital impetus to the project which depends on blended finance. 

  2. Unique to this project are the upfront restoration plans being developed alongside any alien clearing.

  3. It is vital to create meaningful livelihoods, hence the SMME approach with the Genadendal Nursery.

  4. You need local champions, like Ross Philip, to bring other landowners on board.

  5. You need a project steering committee and must listen to their needs – one of which was to choose a stretch of river to showcase the successes.

Follow the journey of water

Sign up for the WWF Newsletter and get regular news and information on how you can use water more sparingly.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss, Media Manager

Andrea Weiss knows that without functioning natural systems there would be no water for us to drink.