Lesson learned: The fact that 21 organizations have been willing to participate voluntarily in the initiative is noteworthy, as is the leadership role taken by municipalities. Through a focus on ecological infrastructure, it has been easier to communicate the relevance of functioning natural ecosystems to government representatives.
Thirsty alien plants are among many threats to water supply for people and habitats in drought-prone South Africa.
Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Biodiversity Hotspot
In KwaZulu-Natal Province, part of the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot, clearing non-native plant species is at the heart of an innovative project to protect both biodiversity and the water supply for around 5 million people. Led by World Wildlife Fund–South Africa (WWF-SA), the Water Balance Program brings together farmers, companies, conservationists, and the provincial government in an unusual alliance. Over the past three years, their combined efforts have cleared black wattle, gum, and pine from around 19 kilometers of the uMngeni River’s upper catchment, a rich landscape of threatened grassland, wetland, and forest.
As a result, around 300 million liters of precious water are no longer lost to these water-thirsty plants each year. Instead, the water remains in the river catchment, which supplies almost half the province, including Durban, South Africa’s second largest city. Stripping invasive alien plants from private farmland has also brought big biodiversity benefits. Habitat has increased for threatened species, including antelope, cranes and many indigenous amphibians, invertebrates and plants. And two farms involved have agreed to place cleared land under binding, long-term biodiversity protection agreements.
“Alien plant species, such as black wattle and eucalyptus trees, easily outcompete indigenous plants, and use much higher amounts of water,” says Gareth Boothway, WWF–SA’s water stewardship project manager for the Mondi Wetlands Programme. “This causes huge problems for critically endangered, locally iconic species, such as oribi antelope and wattled cranes,* which depend heavily on the area’s remaining highland, moist grassland and wetlands.” In addition to water hogging, invasive alien species have altered aquatic invertebrate life and grassland species, increased fire risk, and destabilized river banks, causing silting downstream. Removing them, says Boothway, presented a “practical and effective solution” to water supply risk while protecting the area’s rich plant and animal life.
The project’s success is based on a pioneering public-private sector model for rewarding landowners for ecosystems services. In addition to a US$258,712 grant from CEPF and support from the national government’s Department of Environmental Affairs, WWF enlisted Nedbank, a local commercial bank. Nedbank sought to balance its operational water use of 550 million liters by investing more than US$578,000 over five years in four Water Balance Programme projects, including the uMngeni catchment. “It’s an attractive model for companies as it delivers social, economic and environmental benefits in tangible ways, and where it counts the most for the country’s economy,” says Helen Gordon, program development manager, WWF Water Balance Programme.
Equally critical was the cooperation of local landowners. In return for having their land cleared, which reduced fire risk and increased valuable livestock grazing, farmers signed legal contracts with WWF to maintain the cleared areas. WWF organized removal of alien species by hiring independent contractors or paying farmers to use their own workers. Six properties signed up, including 6,000-hectare Ivanhoe Farm, which combines extensive beef ranching and potato crops.
“Our farm is at the top of the catchment area for Durban, so these invasive plants affected the city’s water supply quite a lot,” Ivanhoe’s manager John Campbell explained. “We also wanted to do something for conservation, and there were other spin-off benefits. WWF employed local people to do the clearing, and we sold the wood that had commercial value and used the funds to rebuild classrooms for the farm school. It was a win-win all round.”
In 2015, Ivanhoe Farm finalized a binding agreement with the provincial government to turn 800 hectares into the protected uMngeni Plateau Nature Reserve. “We have wattled crane on the land, which are extremely endangered. It’s a good feeling to make that kind of difference,” says Campbell. Cattle still graze the reserve, but the farm manages the land with the Kwazulu-Natal conservation agency. “Other farmers are suspicious of losing control over their land, but that has not been our experience at all,” reports Campbell. “We discuss things in a very informal way and work it out.”
Helen Gordon sees significant potential in combining corporate, public and CEPF-style funding to finance similar ecosystems services projects. “Investment into the ecological health of these catchments is imperative. Combining funding avenues allows for a broader, more impactful approach, increasing the gains achieved.”
*Note: According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the oribi (Ourebia ourebi) is in the category of “Least Concern,” and the wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus) is categorized as “Vulnerable.”