Environmental Affairs still has much work to do on curbing water loss
WORKING for Water’s focus on job creation is not obstructing efforts to control invasive species – the opposite is true, says a senior government official.
“We’re spending more than R1 billion directly on the Working for Water programme this year, employing about 63 000 previously unemployed people, and clearing more than 800 000 ha of invaded land,” said Dr Guy Preston, deputy director-general for environmental programmes at the Department of Environmental Affairs.
“These are big numbers. The management of so many people, the stakeholder engagements, the data management and reporting requirements, are truly arduous.
“That things go wrong is obvious and inevitable, as in any kitchen, any workshop, any research laboratory.
“There are lost hectares (cleared but reinvaded). There are some projects with far too high costs. There are things we are doing that are simply not priorities.
“What we do have is an experienced and committed management capacity, and we are constantly improving. It is true we’re a bureaucracy, and changing course has its challenges – especially when confronted with a need for emergency responses, such as after a wildfire. But we have built up something no one else has done anywhere in the world. We have more than 100 national and international awards, despite not entering for them.”
Preston was responding to an article in Weekend Argus last Saturday about researchers’ findings on Working for Water’s efforts in the Cape Floral Region. The research team were from the DST-NRF Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch University, SA National Parks, CapeNature and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
They said Cape Town and Port Elizabeth could lose as much as 36 percent of their water supply over the next 30 to 50 years if Working for Water failed to improve the management of invasive pine trees in protected areas of the Cape Floral Region.
It was found Working for Water’s management practices often fell short of the required standard. The funding and management of alien plant control projects would have to change markedly, said the study’s lead author, terrestrial ecologist Professor Brian van Wilgen, of the Centre for Invasion Biology (CIB).
“The way in which South Africa funds and manages alien plant control projects will have to change substantially,” he said. “The consequences of not getting this right are serious. Invaded and degraded catchment areas will compromise our ability to grow this region’s economy. So we need fewer jobs now for welltrained and motivated workers to protect far more jobs in the future.”
Preston said Van Wilgen was absolutely correct in his assertions of the seriousness of the invasion by pine trees in the mountains of the Cape Floristic Kingdom, and elsewhere.
“If anything, (the research- ers’) estimates of the potential damage to long-term water security, should the pines be allowed to fully invade, are conservative.”
The task of prioritising Working for Water’s efforts was “complex, technical, reliant on monitoring to assess the efficacy of interventions, and in need of strong management capacities”, Preston said.
“Without the labour-intensive approach, we would not remotely have the resources we have been afforded to do our work.”
The combined budget was R3.2 billion in this financial year alone.
Working for Water, he argued, provided an original blueprint for South Africa’s poverty relief programme, and its successor, the Expanded Public Works Programme.
Preston said the research paper did not adequately factor in four major considerations: the use of alien and invasive species regulations; the potential use of invasive biomass for value- added industries; the recent introduction of land-user incentives and the re-establishment of a partner- ship with the timber companies that promoted the use of invasive pine species in their plantations.
Also, wildfires could not be discounted nor predicted.
“When invaded areas burn, the germination of seeds of invasive species is a major consequence.
“After the March 2015 fires on the Table Mountain chain, these seedlings led to a need for urgent follow-up clearing (costing) about R35m. We have had to take that money from other sources. This includes high-altitude clearing of pine trees (and other species) on Table Mountain.
“We’re in a situation where we dare not fail to address the regrowth of invasive plants on Table Mountain, particularly the interface with built- up areas.
“To do so would be to invite an uncontrollable fire in the future and undo the partnerships with those who live adjacent to the mountain and who must keep their land clear of invasives.”
Communities are trained to eliminate alien plants such as bugweed, which sap the water supply of rivers and streams and choke indigenous vegetation.