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Springs of hope: restoring springs, reviving communities

On a chilly winter morning, smoke weaves through the air, painting the drab winter grasslands in shades of blue and grey. Out of this smoky mist emerges a line of determined figures, small but resolute. These are mostly young kids, and their mission is no ordinary task. They're here on the grassy hills of Matatiele, South Africa, to fetch water from a natural spring – a muddy puddle hollowed from the grassy hillside that holds the key to their family's survival.

A group of people gather to collect water from a spring in the early hours of the morning.
© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
Collecting water in the early hours of the day is a common task for many kids from the rural grassland areas of Matatiele in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg.
Water, water everywhere, yet a daily rural strain for most

This picturesque landscape, where the Umzimvubu River begins its journey, is a strategic water source area, one of South Africa’s critical 22 high water-producing landscapes, yet its abundant water resources stand in contrast to its people’s daily struggle to access good quality water.  
With municipal infrastructure absent or dysfunctional, the families in this rural region rely on these natural springs as their safety net for their daily water supply. Sadly, environmental degradation is causing this net to wear thin. And sometimes, cows and other animals can get to the spring first, turning the water muddy and fouled. Other times, human trash and pollutants taint the spring’s fresh water supply which bubbles up from below. These springs are fed by hidden sources of groundwater which surface across this water-rich landscape. 
Thirsty invasive alien trees dotted across the grasslands also suck up large volumes of water, preventing more water from reaching these springs and leaving their flow weak and feeble. 


A muddy spring rises from the ground.
© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
A natural spring is often not much more than a muddy hole, yet it is a vital water source to so many who live in rural areas without access to piped water.
Enabling everyday water heroes

But here's where the helpers and heroes come in. Organisations like Environmental and Rural Solutions, Lima Rural Development Foundation and Conservation South Africa, with WWF’s financial and strategic support, have been on a mission since 2018 to assist in safeguarding some of these water sources. Our collective goal? To protect and restore these natural springs, making sure they're clean and accessible – for the benefit of both people and nature.  

The process starts with the on-the-ground implementing partners talking to the local leaders, traditional healers and community members, getting their blessings to work in the area. Together, they choose the best springs to be secured based on factors like how fast the water replenishes in the spring, how many people rely on a spring, how far it is from homes and whether the springs are being used for traditional healing. 

© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
This spring in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg is a prime example of one that is worth safeguarding – protected by natural rock and close to many rural homes.
Getting stuck into safeguarding a spring

Once a spring is chosen, it is time to roll up our sleeves. Invasive plants are removed to give more water back to the spring and the spring's eye – its upwelling source – is safeguarded to keep it clean.  

The spring water is then guided into storage tanks. These small tanks, like quiet reservoirs, fill up naturally overnight and get treated – with a treatment system built into the tank – to ensure the water is safe to drink. The extra storage means the spring’s water supply is more reliable and significantly cuts down the waiting times for women and children, leaving them more time to be at school and do other activities. And once the tank is full? Well, the extra water is given back to nature, continuing to provide for both plants and animals. 

People standing near the built up spring which makes the collection of water easier and safer.
© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
This spring includes a small section of a built-wall structure to enable easier access to the once marshy, muddy spring site.
Local custodians of the life-giving springs

But we can’t just build infrastructure without empowering the communities to be the stewards of their natural resources. After construction, traditional leaders become the custodians of the springs. Local "water champions" are trained to keep the tanks maintained.  

Young “EcoChamps” join the mission, spreading awareness about safe water and environmental care. Together, they create a ripple effect of change that positively impacts the environment, water resources and people’s well-being. 

The local community is enabled as the custodian of their safeguarded spring.
© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
The local community is enabled as the custodian of their safeguarded spring.
Bubbling over, beyond the springs of the Eastern Cape

WWF has since extended this spring work to other provinces, enabling the safeguarding of springs in the Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area and the Northern Drakensberg Water Source Area, both in neighbouring KwaZulu-Natal. 

In addition, WWF is taking this work beyond the on-the-ground benefits. We're turning these spring success stories into a process roadmap for others to follow. We're crafting a framework with practical case studies and a concise policy brief to encourage the government to support rural spring protection as a low-cost, suitable means of providing basic water access to difficult-to-access communities.  

With the backing of funding partners like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Reckitt and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, we've already revitalised 44 springs in the wider Matatiele area, helping more than 33 000 people with easier access to water – at a once-off cost of just R160–250 per person. And we are grateful for new funding support from Heineken and Glenfiddich so that this work can continue to benefit more communities. 

A young person carries a bucket of water through the grasslands of the Eastern Cape
© WWF / Samir Randera-Rees
For thousands of people living in rural areas, such as the grasslands of the Eastern Cape, walking to collect water is an essential and time-consuming task in their daily lives.
A story of hope springing eternal

So, in South Africa's heartland, where nature's rhythm intertwines with daily human existence, a story of resilience and teamwork takes centre stage. Once neglected and accessed only by the early few, natural springs can now mirror the needs and determination of the communities safeguarding them.  

Every person has the right to access a decent, safe water supply. As an NGO, we cannot build dams and lay major pipelines to give these rural communities ready-to-use water. Hence, by protecting these close-by natural springs, we're mending and strengthening the natural safety net that can continue to support nature and the rural people of South Africa.  

Samir Randera-Rees Photo
Samir Randera-Rees, Programme Manager, Water Source Areas

Samir aims to show that water doesn’t come from a tap, but that every South African is in some way reliant on the water source areas and the benefits they provide to society

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