Catchment conservation key to South Africa’s water supply


Over the years there has been a degradation in the formerly pristine waters of catchments like the uMngeni and iNzinga, with an insidious increase in dirty water and agricultural pollution. In order to address the issue, the WWF Nedbank Green Trust has funded the KwaNovuka Catchment Sensitive Farming Pilot Project.

The project will be led by the Upland River Conservation which has dranw up a catchment management plan for the 16 000ha upper uMngeni catchment, on which 45% of KZN’s population, including millions of people in Pietermaritzburg and Durban, rely for water.

The importance of conserving our catchments is that they are able to free up more water. For every two drops of water in South Africa’s rivers, one originates in only 8% of our country’s land area, mostly in the SWSAs’ high mountain catchments, including the uMngeni and iNzinga. All catchment rehabilitation efforts need to start at the top of the catchment at the headwaters to slow down the water flow, coupled with improving the grass cover. Both the uMngeni and iNzinga catchments flow down through wetland-rich grasslands grazed by cattle.

The project will focus on partnering with the communal and commercial cattle farmers in both catchments to create a shared learning platform for optimal grassland management and catchment sensitive farming. We will look at grazing methods that are proving to be very successful in the communally grazed areas of the SWSA in the Matatiele region of the Eastern Cape.

The KwaNovuka project underpins existing, current grassland and catchment management projects in the two catchments, such as Meat Naturally’s Herding for Health project and Umgeni’s Water’s stewardship project, both of which are being implemented by the Institute of Natural Resources (INR).

Cattle are the currency in both the commercial and communal farming sectors in the two catchments, and many families are entirely dependent on cattle for their livelihoods. The project will facilitate and fund a joint learning study group with communal and commercial cattle farmers representing all beef farming interests in the twinned upper catchments of the uMngeni and iNzinga. Approximately 78% of the overall land use in this area comprises of beef farming.

The study group will work together to agree on grazing approaches that help restore and maintain healthy, resilient grasslands. They will also look at developing a best practice manual for current and future landowners, perhaps with joint management co-ordination in respect of burning and other practices.

Good grazing practices combined with prudent burning schedules contribute to the health of the grasslands which are directly connected to the health of the catchments as the grasslands serve as a giant rainwater sponge that feed water into the rivers throughout the year. Degraded landscapes lead to significant soil erosion, undermining their water provision to the rivers, and washing vast amounts of topsoil down river, which could cause a major silting issue in the planned Smithfield Dam, that is concerning the dam engineers.

As part of the project a catchment management plan for the upper iNzinga catchment, which is a tributary of the uMkhomazi River that will feed into the Smithfield Dam which will help to service Durban and Pietermaritzburg’s water needs within the next two decades, will be drawn up.

For the most part, the grasslands in the project region used to be devoid of trees, except for the steep south-facing slopes where small patches of beautiful indigenous forests are found. But alien invasive plants, predominantly black wattle, eucalyptus and bramble, have invaded the landscape. Organisations like Working for Water and the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) need to use their resources to tackle the alien invasive species. In both catchments, black wattle infestations use millions of kilolitres of water.

This Green Trust funded grassland management work will help to prevent further invasion of the grasslands by alien invasive trees. Down the line the project seeks to formalise water resource governance in the region through the establishment of a local water resource management institution.

The central geographic point of the KwaNovuka project’s focus is the village of KwaNovuka, which is situated within the wetland-rich uMngeni catchment, but straddles the watershed, with drainage to the uMkhomazi via the iNnzinga tributary. This is communally farmed land within the Impendle Municipality, which includes a pristine 260ha wetland called the Impendle Vlei. The KwaNovuka project is aligned with the offset work emanating from the Smithfield Dam project, in keeping with the ambitions of the proposed eThekwini Water Fund, and the Biodiversity Stewardship model of expanding protected areas on private and communal land within the two adjacent catchments.

Money from uMngeni Water has been invested in a trial project in the area in three sites – they are removing alien invasive wattle trees and using the brushwood material to build erosion control berms, and they have planted grass in soil eroded areas, coupled with well-managed grazing.

If farmers can experience improved livelihoods from the project, given that well- managed, healthy grasslands can achieve higher profitability from improved cattle herds and calving percentages, it will create a long-term incentive to adopt the best practices established by the project. Cattle farmers are getting more money for their cattle on auction because the animals are in good condition, and there is opportunity for younger people to stay in the area and make a living from cattle. Improved livelihoods and opportunities are key to the success of the project.