Water security in the cross-hairs

January 22, 2024
That’s the uMkhomazi river, a strategic water resource that rises in the southern Drakensberg mountains and serves thousands of downstream users, including the Sappi-Saiccor mill on the south coast. In the foreground are cleared alien wattles.

The Sappi/WWF Water Stewardship Partnership is making a difference in the uMkhomazi catchment, a strategic water resource area serving a myriad of downstream users …

There are no plantations here - except for the remains of a rogue black wattle jungle that has been cleared from the banks of the river - as we follow a well used footpath down into the uMkhomazi valley. This is tribal land used by the Nzinga people who live in a sprawling rural settlement a little way upstream from Impendle. They graze their cattle here on these grassy slopes, but over the years a combination of over-grazing, uncontrolled wildfires and encroaching alien vegetation has taken its toll on the landscape which has been losing its capacity to support the livestock upon which they depend for survival.

This is a familiar scenario in rural South Africa, where land degradation and deepening rural poverty go hand in hand. This process has significant negative impacts on the water quality that runs off the catchment and ends up in one of KwaZulu-Natal’s major rivers that serves a myriad of downstream water users.

But now things are changing in this section of the valley which has become a focus of attention following a ground-breaking Water Stewardship Partnership between Sappi and WWF-SA (the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa) that was launched in 2021. The alien wattle trees are gone, the cattle are being moved around in camps by local ‘eco-rangers’, wildfires are being kept out and the grasslands are beginning to show signs of recovery.

The eco-rangers move the community’s cattle into camps at night to stimulate the soil and encourage the natural grass cover to return on the bare patches of ground where alien wattle was cleared.

The Sappi/WWF team has engaged the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) to organise and support the local farmers to rehabilitate their rangelands and improve their herds so that they can earn a better living off their cattle. INR facilitated the clearing of alien wattle as well as the training of the farmers and the ‘eco-rangers’ who watch over the cattle, move them from camp to camp, keep wildfires and stock thieves at bay and engage in land restoration work.

The eco-rangers are managed by the local cattle owners who have joined the project. They have received training through Meat Naturally in regenerative grazing techniques, rangeland restoration and livestock management. Meat Naturally has also organised a mobile auction to enable the famers to sell their cattle and access new markets.

Mthobisi Gwala of the Institute of Natural Resources (left) and local cattle farmer Nkosi Nxamalala are engaged in a project to improve the rangelands and restore the health of the natural ecosystems in the uMkhomazi catchment.

One of the cattle farmers, Nkosi Nxamalala, was sitting on the hillside watching his cattle graze in the valley below, and accompanied us on our walk. He told us that 40 farmers from his community have joined the programme. They own 700 head of cattle between them, and they are starting to see how the improved grazing is benefitting them. He was especially thankful for the training he has received in animal health which has helped him to maintain a healthy herd.

Lower down in the valley where the wattle jungle has been cleared, the wattle slash has been used to create berms to prevent soil erosion on the bare patches of soil that have been left behind. Various techniques are being trialled to find the best way of encouraging the natural grass cover to grow back on these bare patches, including camping the cattle overnight so that their dung and the action of their hooves can stimulate and promote soil health and get the natural grasses to grow back.

According to Mthobisi Gwala of INR, many cattle farmers in neighbouring communities are beginning to see how good range management is benefitting the Nzinga farmers and are lining up to join the programme. He says INR is also busy implementing a similar programme with cattle farmers from the Ekukhanyeni community, located a little downstream from the Nzinga.

Local people were employed to clear alien wattle which had invaded the Nzinga’s traditional rangelands in the uMkhomazi valley, negatively impacting their cattle businesses as well as the health of the catchment. (Photo: Wanika Davids, WWF SA)
These berms constructed from wattle slash are used to prevent soil erosion on the bare patches of soil left behind after the alien wattle was cleared from the banks of the uMkhomazi river.

Water stewardship

What does all of this have to do with ‘water stewardship’ you may ask?

Well, an important component of improving the land management within the catchment involves engaging with local communities that occupy and utilise the land and providing them with the tools and the skills to turn things around and restore the health of the natural ecosystems. Healthy wetlands and grasslands store moisture, releasing it slowly downstream while protecting the soil from erosion, providing a healthy habitat for wild flora and fauna and better grazing for livestock which in turn benefits the communities. An added benefit is that healthy soils and grasslands store more carbon than degraded landscapes, thus mitigating the effects of climate change as well.

This is just one aspect of the Sappi WWF-SA programme that aims to improve water security in the uMkhomazi catchment. It is an ambitious and complex undertaking involving multiple stakeholders. The uMkhomazi is one of KwaZulu-Natal’s most strategic river catchment systems that extends all the way from the southern Drakensberg mountains to the sea.

Along the way the river provides the primary water resource for many rural communities such as the Nzinga, extensive commercial agriculture and forestry operations, as well as manufacturing businesses, peri-urban settlements and towns all the way to the coast.

The village of the Nzinga … many of the community members rely on cattle farming for their livelihoods.

Invested in the catchment

Sappi is heavily invested in this catchment with some 42 000 ha of plantation forestry spread across its upper reaches, while Sappi-Saiccor mill – one of the biggest dissolving pulp mills in the world – is situated on the banks of the river less than one km from its mouth where it enters the Indian Ocean.

According to Sappi’s Biodiversity Engagement Specialist, Craig Daniel, water security has been identified as a key risk for Sappi, with both their pulp manufacturing operation and the forestry lands being dependent upon a healthy catchment, viable communities and good quality water. It’s not surprising therefore that Sappi has joined forces with WWF-SA, one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, to address the challenges.

Beginning in 2021, Sappi and WWF have been collaborating with many other partners to achieve the objectives of the Water Stewardship Programme, which has four main focus areas:-
• To improve water governance through multi-stakeholder engagement;
• To promote efficient water-use;
• To remove alien invasive plants and rehabilitate wetlands and riparian areas;
• To strengthen the capacity of local communities in natural resource management.

Krelyne Andrew, GM Sustainability Dissolving Pulp at Sappi-Saiccor, says: “Sappi has prioritised Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6 – the right to clean water and sanitation – as part of its business strategy.” This stewardship project is putting that promise into practice, she says.

The Sappi-Saiccor pulp mill is situated at the end of the uMkhomazi catchment just upstream from the river mouth.

Strategic water source areas

With water use having grown at more than twice the rate of population increase in the last century and with South Africa being a water-scarce country, WWF-SA has chosen to focus many of its portfolio of projects on securing South Africa’s Strategic Water Source Areas. These are the areas that deliver over 50% of South Africa’s freshwater to downstream economies, while only making up 10% of the country’s land cover. The uMkhomazi catchment is one of these strategic water source areas.

To achieve its objectives, WWF-SA is pro-actively mobilising water stewardship partnerships throughout the country to bring together communities, corporations, government, and non-profit organisations to tackle the water challenges in the Strategic Water Source Areas. The Sappi WWF uMkhomazi Water Stewardship Programme is one such partnership.

“Our partnership with Sappi is crucial, as WWF cannot work on its own to secure these important Strategic Water Source Areas,” commented David Lindley of WWF.

Left to right: Dr Dave Everard, Mthobisi Gwala (INR) and Craig Daniel (Sappi) visiting the Nzinga tribal rangelands in the uMkhomazi valley upstream from Impendle.

Water governance challenges

Dr Dave Everard, former Sappi Forests Environmental Manager (recently retired) who has been involved in setting up the programme, said that a key aspect of the work of the project team is to address water governance issues. Dave said there are huge challenges out there that impact on water security, and the project has provided the team with an opportunity to engage with the many levels of stakeholders involved in water governance and usage. These range from the Department of Water and Sanitation, to local authorities, water boards, farmer associations, communities and other water users.

The Sappi team is all too aware that their own forestry operations can have an impact on the catchment

Commented Hlengiwe Ndlovu, Divisional Environmental Manager for Sappi Forests: “We recognise the impact our plantations can have in the uMkhomazi catchment and on freshwater ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers, and the importance of these being well managed. So, we promote water stewardship as a key part of our forestry management and make every effort to reduce the impacts of our forestry activities on water resources.

“The opportunity for green jobs through the partnership’s focus on alien invasive plant clearing is also fully aligned with Sappi’s commitment to Enterprise and Supplier Development that promotes sustainable livelihoods through capacity building of small and medium-sized enterprises,” said Hlengiwe.

A thorough review of the first phase of the project has been done, and the good news is that both Sappi and WWF have expressed their satisfaction with the platform that has been established in Phase One, and have committed to continue with the programme for another four year cycle, ending in September 2027. In addition to the freshwater work, the partnership will explore the integration of biodiversity stewardship and sustainable financing initiatives during Phase Two.

The cattle are camped at night to help restore soil fertility and grass cover, while during the day they are moved around the communal lands to give the grass time to recover and prevent over-grazing. (Photo: Wanika Davids, WWF SA)


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