Credit WWF

‘You have to start with strengthening good governance. In the absence of addressing this, you can clear a thousand hectares of invasive alien vegetation to free up more water, but if there isn’t a well-managed governance system and active leadership to maintain it thereafter, then a lot of the interventions won’t be long-lasting or sustainable.’

Talking about the multiple environmental threats facing the greater Garden Route area, WWF’s Water Source Areas Manager, Samir Randera-Rees explains WWF’s approach to their partnership with the not-for-profit United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) Garden Route Biosphere Reserve (GRBR) led by sustainability specialist Dr Bianca Currie.

They have come together to improve the management of the natural environment that supports the livelihoods of all communities living and working in the GRBR. It spans the greater Garden Route region – from George in the southern Cape to Van Staden’s Bridge in the Eastern Cape, and 200km inland.

‘Major issues facing the region include a rapid expansion of invasive alien vegetation such as black wattle, which severely compromises water resources throughout the catchments; major fire risks, land degradation from agriculture and plantations, and rapid urban expansion. ‘To address this, WWF is working on a project with the GRBR to build stronger management capacity in the governing institutions in the region, which is lacking, and to bring together all the projects and programmes in the public and private sector to create landscape-wide collaboration and impact,’ Randera-Rees explains.

A key focus is to rehabilitate and improve the management of the ecological infrastructure, with an emphasis on water. The GRBR overlaps with two Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSAs) in the Western Cape – the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma SWSAs. South Africa’s SWSAs have become one of the National Government’s highest environmental and water priorities, and WWF works hard with its partners to enhance the protection and management of the SWSAs because they supply the bulk of the country’s water, flowing to downstream communities, economies and cities. It’s vital for human livelihoods and the national economy.

Improving water management and environmental integrity in the GRBR is essential for the sustainable development and delivery of ecosystem services to the region’s economy and population of over 500 000 people. The removal of alien invasive trees to free up more water, as well as environmental strategies for fire management are two major issues being addressed.

The project is being funded by a number of organisations, including the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and South African Breweries (SAB). WWF has a longstanding invasive alien tree clearing project with SA Breweries in two sub-catchments of the Outeniqua mountains – the only place in Africa where hops are grown.

‘After 11 years of this project and many other individual public and private projects, it was clear this was achieving great localised impacts but was not impacting the broader landscape to enhance the security the SWSAs,’ says Randera-Rees. ‘So our new way of working is to bring together all the localised work and projects and to feed this collective activity and experience into the GRBR partnership to strengthen networks, improve governance and work together to create a landscape-scale governance system,’ Randera-Rees explains.

To date they have held several workshops and are establishing a working group with shared interests, including representatives from government entities like SANParks, CapeNature, National Resource Management (including Working for Water, Working for Wetlands and Working on Fire), local and district municipalities, business, industry, farmers, the Catchment Management Agency, citizens, non-governmental organisations, and large international partners such as The Nature Conservancy (TNC) – a global environmental organisation, based in Virginia in the United States.

The team has developed a monitoring and evaluation system that can be used across the landscape and is ensuring it integrates the voices of local communities to get their perspectives and participation. Locals don’t all have online access and to make up for this, the project convenors will be visiting numerous communities in the biosphere reserve so that they can participate.

They are also looking at partnerships to address alien clearing together in the high-altitude areas, where the catchments begin. Partners they are looking to engage include the forestry industry, which is active in the alien clearing of ‘escapee trees’ from their plantations into the surrounding areas. Other partners that could help them to address this neglected gap include private landowners, communities and the management bodies of the various nature reserves and protected areas, including CapeNature and SANParks.

Randera-Rees says: ‘Many of the major players in the landscape, including SANParks, CapeNature and TNC, are recognising the GRBR as a unifying body and a solid foundation from which other activities and funding can spring. We are currently in discussion about developing a water fund for catchment finance and management, which will require specific management and governance training. Setting it up is costly but the long-term benefit far outweighs this.

‘TNC has a funding vehicle that is very well established worldwide, which creates a business case for the improved management of the ecological infrastructure. They set out to quantify the impact of future environmental deterioration on downstream users, including agriculture, industry and municipalities. They show that if stakeholders and funders start to pay for the management of the catchment and landscape now, the sustainability of their water-dependent businesses and operations will be secured, with significant longer-term financial gains. If they don’t do this, water security and livelihoods will be further threatened, and it will cost far more to try and address the issue in the future when it might be too late.’