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