Water security for Pongola

Photo Credit: Simon Rawles


In the rural areas the manner in which your upstream neighbours manage their water directly impacts on the quality and quantity of the water you receive. Which is why the over two million water users along the 230 km Pongola River are being encouraged to come together to comanage this strategic South African water source in the Water Security for Pongola Project.

The Pongola River and its headwater is part of the critical 8% of South African landscapes that provide more than 50% of our country’s fresh water. The Pongola River and catchment supplies a wide range of water users, including forestry, farmers (predominantly livestock, sugar cane and fruit), agri-industry, towns and rural communities. All are connected through this major South African water source that starts in the headwaters of the Enkangala Grasslands near Utrecht and Wakkerstroom, and ends in the Indian Ocean in Mozambique. The headwaters are situated in an exceptionally high-water-yield landscape where WWF-SA’s Freshwater and Enkangala Grasslands Projects are situated.

Apart from its priceless water value, Enkangala is a key biodiversity area rich in rare plant and animal species. The Pongola headwaters are the last remaining breeding grounds of the endangered Yellow Fish and home to the critically endangered southern barred minnow. Despite their key status, the headwaters are being threatened by unsustainable land use practices including coal mining, which poses a severe water pollution problem. To conserve the headwaters a substantial number of commercial livestock farmers in the region, who farm sustainably as part of the Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, have come together through the WWF Grasslands Programme. In partnership with WWF and their provincial conservation agencies they have achieved significant conservation objectives, including securing Protected Environment status for large tracts of privately owned land.

Downstream from the headwaters are many more farmers, including fruit and sugar cane farmers, sugar mills, agri-industry, such as Illovo Sugar, and many rural communities. A high percentage of impoverished people live in the Pongola catchment without water services or sanitation services. Many people still have to fetch their daily water from the river and use the bush or river as a toilet. This puts them at risk to a range of waterborne diseases, including cholera and dysentery, and creates a situation where the river water can test for unacceptably high levels of fecal matter and E. coli bacteria. Large sections of the Pongola catchment are also infested with alien vegetation, which absorbs vast quantities of water. Other sections of the catchment are overgrazed, which leads to topsoil being washed into the river, causing rapid silting of the dams downstream.

To boost water quality and water security along the Pongola catchment we are engaging with landowners, local government, communities and agri-industry to assess the current management of water and threats to water security. From here we will pilot new approaches towards restoring and protecting this critical catchment and its environment. At the same time we need to address better sanitation methods and look at introducing basic water filters and appropriate water treatment methods at the village or household scale. A positive starting point is that many of the commercial farmers are very willing to get together with their neighbouring communities upstream to discuss comanagement of water resources, and to look at ways of improving farming methods and water and sanitation systems. This is only sensible as the upstream water management practices directly impact the water they receive, and hence on their wellbeing and livelihoods.