Photo Credit: Garden Route Biosphere Reserve

There is a window of opportunity to protect strategic water source areas (SWSAs) and to grow the economy of the Garden Route. This is part of what should be a prioritised national drive to improve our economy and critical ecosystem services such as our clean water supply.

To facilitate this, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust contributed funding for the initial development of the Garden Route Biosphere Reserve (GRBR), a non-profit organisation recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in June 2017.

The GRBR covers an area of approximately 700 000 ha and extends from the Western Cape coastline south of George Airport, north along the eastern boundary of its neighbouring Gouritz Cluster Biosphere Reserve, and along the Garden Route coastline into the Eastern Cape to include Jeffrey’s Bay and St Francis Bay.

‘The GRBR is all about sustainable development through landscape-wide coordination and strategic co-management of our natural resources to form the basis of a healthy economy,’ says Dr Bianca Currie, CEO of the GRBR.

With the two years (2021 to January 2023) of WWF Nedbank Green Trust funding for the project, Currie and her team have established a strong working group of 40 high-level decision-making participants, with a specific focus on water risk mitigation and management in the region. The working group includes key water decision-makers in government agencies, municipalities, the Department of Water and Sanitation, irrigation boards, South African National Parks, CapeNature, industry participants such as MTO Forestry and PG Bison.

The GRBR overlaps with the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma SWSAs and is aligned with these conservation initiatives, which the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has supported over several years. The Outeniqua SWSA spans 326 372,53 ha, 77% of which is in the GRBR. The Tsitsikamma SWSA spans 351 410,84 ha, 74% of which is in the GRBR.

The Outeniqua SWSA supplies water to the greater part of the Garden Route, including George and Mossel Bay. The Tsitsikamma SWSA supplies water to Uitenhage and the fruit-growing Langkloof Valley and provides 70% of areas in the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality with water. The economic importance of the SWSAs speaks for itself. In South Africa, 8% of the land area supplies over 50% of the river flow and water for domestic and industrial use countrywide.

‘We are busy developing a system of cooperative governance to secure the clean water supply and environmental integrity of priority areas in the GRBR identified by the working group,’ Currie explains. ‘This includes working on water stewardship and alien invasive clearing projects in our key catchments to free up clean water as a vital ecosystem service supplying the region’s economy.’

Water scarcity and runaway fires are major problems in the GRBR, the biggest problem being the infestation of alien invasive trees, particularly black wattle and pine in the catchments and river areas which take up considerable amounts of water, reduce biodiversity and fuel ferociously hot fires. ‘In addition, SWSAs in the Southern Cape face multiple threats such as land degradation and climate change,’ says Currie.

The project is about bringing stakeholders together to learn and manage collectively. It is also about coordinated and collaborative action as well as fostering care and stewardship for our natural water resources, thus facilitating improved security of the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma SWSAs and establishing the basis for a future Water Source Partnership.

‘An issue we have to address is excessive and illegal water extraction,’ Currie continues. ‘Pollution from herbicides, industrial run-off and domestic waste into rivers and ultimately into estuary environments, is another problem, as is failing water infrastructure and load-shedding, because unreliable power means the sewerage works are overtopping into local rivers.’

This results in increasingly frequent bouts of high E. coli washing into the ocean, threatening people’s health and affecting the status of the beaches which impacts tourism. Social pressures on the area are also immense, with over 500 000 people living in the GRBR.

‘The next phase of the SWSA project aims to establish a citizen-science component to assist with monitoring and evaluation of our water systems in the landscape,’ says Currie. ‘Our long-term aim would be sustainable SWSAs and a greatly improved environment and economy as a result of the work coordinated through the GRBR.

Fortunately, the GRBR did not have to start from scratch. Organisations and companies like WWF, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust and AB InBev have been supporting a range of activities in the Outeniqua and Tsitsikamma SWSAs since 2013. These include invasive alien-tree clearing in collaboration with the Hop Growers Association and water management with dairy farmers.

Currie concludes: ‘Existing initiatives provide excellent opportunities for growing the linkages in the landscape-wide network and broader stewardship activities of the GRBR, enhancing the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of the project.’