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Five enthusiastic volunteers from Ncotshane near Pongola are making waves in their community, with a basic science background and a few crucial skills learnt at a community-led project. Through their inspiring initiative which contributes towards the protection of an important water-producing landscape they also provide support to their community and local municipality. Dimpho Lephaila travelled to Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal with two WWF colleagues and a representative from HEINEKEN South Africa, who funds the project in Pongola.
It is just before the lockdown in March when we set off. We are on the N2 from King Shaka International Airport to Ncotshane near Pongola. Although it is the first month of autumn, it is a scorching and humid day in the Zululand valleys where Pongola is situated. This town is a popular stopover for travellers bound for Eswatini, Mozambique, Sodwana Bay or Kosi Bay. Our destination, the little-known township of Ncotshane is nearby and borders the Pongola River.
We are here to meet a group of five volunteers – or Enviro Champs as they are known – who have made a name for themselves in their neighbourhood by fixing and reporting water and sewer leaks, facilitating litter clean-ups and creating environmental awareness in the area.
My colleague Kholosa Magudu who had been working with the Enviro Champs since 2016 tells me that it was initiated by Impala Water Users Association, with financial support from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. What I admire about these eco champions is that they do this work without expecting anything in return. Their commitment and spirit are an example for young people in our country. So impressive have they been that it’s attracted the attention of corporates whose business operations depend on water, like HEINEKEN South Africa. In 2019, this company opened its purse to provide further support and strengthen the work of the Enviro Champs. They now get a stipend which helps to take care of some of their basic needs.
The need for these Enviro Champs is to deal with issues such as water and sewer leaks and illegal waste dumping in the community. This goes hand in hand with WWF’s efforts to address a variety of threats to freshwater in key water source areas, and HEINEKEN South Africa’s investment in WWF’s work and sustainability effort as part of their ‘Brewing a Better World’. Ayanda Nkosi from HEINEKEN South Africa, who is also with us on the trip, says that they are reducing the water that they use within their breweries and are treating the water they discharge back into the environment. This is an excellent example of active business responsibility towards saving this precious shared resource.
Beyond this, the project has provided these environmental champions with skills that increase their chances for employment and bettering their lives. Over the years, they have completed training on basic financial management, computer literacy, street theatre, environmental awareness and basic plumbing.
Upon meeting the Enviro Champs, I ask Siyabonga Gumede – the younger member in the group – to explain what drew him to this opportunity. His response is simple yet profound: "The Pongola River runs near our town, and many people depend on it for water. As a young person, I believe that it is my duty to create awareness about environmental issues so that we can minimise the impacts before it’s too late.”
My wish is to see this special river because Kholosa had also shared with me that the Pongola River is a vital source of water for South Africa and Mozambique. The headwaters of this catchment are in the Enkangala Drakensberg Water Source Area just below the Mabola Protected Environment in Mpumalanga. This high water-yield area provides water to about two million downstream users, which underscores the need to conserve it.
As we drive through the township, with houses built on a beautiful hilly landscape on one side, and RDP houses on a flat piece of land surrounded by sugar cane fields on the other, we see first-hand some of the challenges that the Enviro Champs deal with. These include illegal dumping of waste as well as a polluted river. They are trying to tackle these issues at the source.
The Enviro Champs go from door-to-door, creating awareness among the young and the old about the importance of responsible waste and water management in their homes. We stop by one of the homes in this community of over 20 000 people. Within a few minutes of our arrival the neighbours also join in. The way that the Enviro Champs explain these topics you would swear that they are expert environmental educators. This reminds me of when I used to do outreach work in the marine space in KwaZulu-Natal. They use laminated images to show how waste impacts on the environment, visually bringing the message home. The community members listen attentively, ask questions and raise their concerns to them.
When the Enviro Champs visit these homes they also check if there are any leaking taps and if waste is managed appropriately. They fix what they can and report to the municipality what they are unable to sort out. The Enviro Champs are trusted in their neighbourhood and they have built a strong relationship with their local Zululand District Municipality, which contributes to having some of the issues attended to much quicker than usual.
When it comes to waste, the Enviro Champs provide the community with tips on how to manage their household rubbish better. The community knows to take their recyclable materials to one of the Enviro Champs for recycling. Sipho Appols used the knowledge that he gained from being an Enviro Champ to realise that his own recycling business can make a difference to environmental protection and clearing of waste. We visit his home to see it with our own eyes.
As we walk into Sipho’s recycling station, we are greeted by all kinds of waste materials you can think of. They were spread neatly across the yard. With glass bottles in one corner, plastic bottles and plastic bags in the other, cans on one side and paper waste on another.
I am quite amazed by Sipho’s innovative talents as he shows us the magic of his own hands. He introduces us to a plastic bottle compressor that he created using an engine from his old vehicle and a piece of a ship container! He also has what he calls a “Zulu glass bottle crusher”, which does exactly what the name says – it crushes glass bottles.
The Enviro Champs also lead clean-up campaigns in the township. Any waste collected from these events is taken to Sipho’s recycling station for sorting and recycling of relevant materials. Although his business is still a small operation it does help Sipho put food on the table. His goal is to grow it so much that he can provide job opportunities for youth in his hometown.
Access to potable water is another big issue for the Ncotshane community. As we drove around the township, we saw that many households have taps in their yards while some use communal taps. Despite this, the Enviro Champs share that they sometimes go for days without water. When this happens, they depend on the municipal trucks to deliver it to them. They say that one of the contributors to water shortage are leaks that arise from the municipal infrastructure. The community cannot do much about this but to report it and wait for the municipality to take action. The good thing is, the Enviro Champs are there to attend to minor household leaks wherever possible. This also means that less water is wasted.
The Enviro Champs are setting an excellent example in their community. They are a voice for nature and for the people of Ncotshane. They are also proof that anyone can make a difference in the world and in their community by using one’s skills, knowledge and talents. Seeing youth being involved in voluntary work like this, and people like Sipho Appols creating nature-positive opportunities for young people gives hope that the future might be better than the present. What’s left for us it to ensure that we provide them with the support that they need for them to grow and do more. More business support will go a long way towards achieving this.
Know of other young African leaders who are making an impact on the environment? They may be eligible.