Drakensberg to Pietermaritzburg
With the first day of our adventure behind us, that evening we reflected on the abundant biodiversity found in the protected catchment area of Highmoor Reserve.
Here, water runs freely, unaltered by the machinations of humankind. But as it flows downstream and as we begin to harness its life-giving power, things change...
In the southern Drakensberg, water's journey continues through forests and farms, flowing into money and jobs - but issues of drought and pollution are abundant.
Because South Africa's rainfall is seasonal, we rely on a massive infrastructure of dams that store water for the dry autumn and winter periods. One of those dams is the newly built Springrove Dam - the first stop on the second day of our journey.
The dam supplies over four million people in the Durban and Pietermaritzburg areas, taking water from the higher Drakensberg region out of necessity to fulfil the demand in a time of drought.
Further downstream, Steve Gillham of Umgeni Water stood at a bustling construction site along the Springrove Inter-basin Transfer Scheme. He explained that to fulfil the huge water demand, water is transferred from the nearby Mooi River into the Umgeni River - a waterway which is under massive strain.
"There are already four dams on the Umgeni River, and we have essentially used all the water in that catchment. We are pumping 3.2 cubic metres (4.5 when the system is upgraded) of water per second through this transfer scheme, which is as much water flow as this river system can take without causing issues like erosion downstream," said Gillham.
Considering that we had already nearly exhausted one river system in this area, the facts shared by WWF's Sue Viljoen were troubling.
“About 60-70% of South Africa's water is used for irrigation and agriculture. Roughly 15,000 litres of water is used to produce 1kg of beef... ”
She explained that about 60-70% of South Africa's water is used for irrigation and agriculture. Roughly 15,000 litres of water is used to produce 1kg of beef; 6,000 litres of water is used to produce 1kg of pork, while 4,300 litres is used for 1kg of chicken, according to figures put forward by waterfootprint.org.
Can we sustain this level of water usage? A consensus among the group was that we need to better manage what we already have, especially considering that 37% of the water we are treating and storing in urban areas is lost through leakages. It's about doing more with the same amount.
We then travelled to a nearby Mondi forestry estate, where 1,667 eucalyptus and pine trees are planted per hectare for use in paper production. Mondi produces nearly 3-million tons of timber a year in South Africa.
Here, Mondi's environmental manager, Brent Corcoran, explained that minimising their water footprint in water-sensitive areas like this is a priority.
“We are entirely dependent on water. It is one of our greatest assets, but also one of our biggest risks... ”
"We are entirely dependent on water. It is one of our greatest assets, but also one of our biggest risks - both in the risk we impose on others if we don't manage our land properly, and the risk that comes to us if others aren't managing their water resources effectively."
All commercial forestry companies such as Mondi and Sappi are required to know where wetlands occur on their plantations, and to set up buffers (in this case 20 metres) between the tree lines and wetland area. This process of wetland "delineation" was introduced to the forestry sector by the WWF Mondi Wetlands Programme some 10 years ago and has now been taken up widely by many companies.
Sappi has gone as far as rehabilitating an entire wetland after 136 ha of planted timber was removed in the early nineties from the Lions River Wetland. We were able to enjoy a meandering walk through the grassland and wide-open spaces of this once-former plantation and hear from Hlengiwe Ndlovu Environmental Specialist at Sappi, the story behind this rehabilitated wetland. There are ongoing challenges of managing the wetland, keeping invasive weeds out like American bramble, and balancing surrounding community needs for grazing.
Making our way to Howick, we then spent time with the amazing people of the Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), who act as a guardian of this heavily polluted section of the Umgeni flowing through the town.
Liz Taylor and Moses Kilozo head a group that helps clean the river of litter and report sewage problems each and every day, brought about by a shoddy waste water treatment facility near the Shiyabazali informal settlement.
Despite the positive contributions made by DUCT, residents of the settlement are still forced to gather their water from a sewage-infested section of the river, highlighting the failure of local municipalities in providing a basic human right - access to fresh water.
Today's journey went a long way towards showing that we need to find ways to better manage our water usage, and take better care of a precious commodity we take for granted.