News

South Africa Water Project Clears Water-Guzzling Alien Plant Infestations

Southern African wetlands and river systems are key to the water security of this arid region but they are severely threatened by invasive alien vegetation which sucks rivers dry, clogs up wetlands, and crowds out indigenous plants and wildlife. South Africa has launched a unique program called "Working for Water" which has created tens of thousands of job in a country beset by high unemployment and which has been very successful in dealing with the problem..

It is a tiny stream, barely more than a trickle, but after decades water is flowing regularly again in the Braamfontein Spruit. The river rises in downtown Johannesburg and gently meanders northwest before emptying into the Hartebeespoort Dam 80 kilometers away.

The Braamfontein is typical of many river systems in Southern Africa which are the lifeblood of water security in the region but which are threatened by infestations of alien vegetation. For years now its path has been defined in the landscape by ever-increasing numbers of Australian eucalyptus with its heavy leaves and tall branches that suck up 70 percent more water than the drought resistant, spreading canopies of African acacia.

The eucalyptus was imported to South Africa in the late 19th century to grow for props in gold mines. Other alien plants have been brought in for a particular purpose and then allowed to spread uncontrolled, while still others have been brought in by landscapers and plant developers.

Concilense Sambo, Gauteng area manager for Working for Water, says alien plants require the same high levels of water throughout the year.

"Mostly with exotic plants, like gum trees [eucalyptus] and so on, they are mostly evergreen, so they suck water from the ground - depending on the size of the tree from 80 liters a day to 200 hundred liters a day, depending on the size of the tree," said Concilense Sambo.

Mr. Sambo says that in addition to using more water, alien plants such as eucalyptus are often allelopathic, that is they kill off surrounding plant life by releasing a chemical into the soil to which local plants have no resistance.

He says research has shown that as a result the impact of alien plant infestations is dramatic and can, in as little as twenty years, reduce the flow in a river system by 74 percent. The impact on wetlands is equally devastating - they dry up and become tinder boxes, thus preventing them from performing their role in containing the natural fires which are common to the region and essential needed for the regeneration of some plant species.

In addition healthy wetlands are like giant sponges, soaking up water in years of abundant rain and releasing it in years of drought. Because of their ability to absorb and contain huge quantities of water, when healthy they also help prevent flooding. However, when they are compromised by alien plants and fire, they can no longer perform this role.

Experts say the impact of the 2000 floods in Mozambique which claimed over 100 lives and rendered over 100,000 people homeless, would have been far less if the upstream wetlands of the Limpopo river and its tributaries in neighboring South Africa had been healthy.

Southern Africa is a predominantly arid region, with an uneven distribution of rivers and wetlands. Rainfall too varies greatly - with the northern parts of the region averaging between 1,000 to 4,000 millimeters; and, the southern parts less than 1,000 to as low as 50 millimeters a year.

And those areas with less rainfall are also more prone to drought - on average experiencing two or more years of drought in every cycle of eight years. Healthy river systems and wetlands help mitigate the impact of drought.

In South Africa, the Working for Water project cleared nearly 200,000 hectares of alien plant infestations in the year ending in February 2004. In the same period, the project did follow-up clearing in nearly 600,000 hectares. In addition to the Braamfontein Spruit water flow has begun or is improved in several other river systems; and some wetlands such as that at Leeukop near Johannesburg have been restored.

Southern Africa is also beset with unemployment, poverty and shortage of skills. South Africa's Working for Water project targets these challenges while working to restore river systems and wetlands. The project has directly created nearly 33,000 jobs among the previously unemployed; it has also benefited communities indirectly by providing firewood, building materials and wood for sculptors and landscapers.

But for people like Charles Shogolo, a team leader on the Braamfontein Spruit project, his job has meant that a family of eight with no breadwinner, is now hopeful about the future.

"I am starting on this project from the year 2000 - so even I'm start from 2000 my life is changed for this project," said Charles Shogolo. "My family is getting some food for eat, and so since I'm start from that time, 2000 my life is changing, I'm living all right, even my family.

"Working for Water" also arranges for its employees to learn new skills as diverse as catchment area management to first aid and safety. For some, such as 52-year-old Beatrice Mbanya Working for Water has been life changing. Speaking in Zulu she told a visitor to the project that she has now acquired one of the most basic skills of all

"When I joined this program I didn't know how to write and now I can write," said Beatrice Mbanya.

Zakes Mokoena is the project manager for the Braamfontein and Jukskei projects around Johannesburg, overseeing 11 teams. He says Working for Water has brought an understanding about water and the environment to all of its employees, himself included.

"So I never thought of any water scarcity or anything, or about the environment whatsoever because I only walk into the streets and there is a nice place and I just walk to get from point A to B; but I never thought of any invasive plants species or water security as problem. I never thought of those things," said Zakes Mokoena.

It is a knowledge that he and others in the project can share with their families and friends - many who are learning for the first time that protecting the environment and scarce water resources is important for their own long term survival and that simple changes in their own lifestyles can also make a difference.

All photos by VOA's Delia Robertson

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs