Working for Water in South Africa

FEATURERestoring Natural Capital Courtesy of M. Powell Working for Water in South Africa The sides of the Baviaanskloof ("Baboon Canyon") in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province range from very steep to vertical. Halfway up a 45-degree slope, under the supervision of spirited 19-year-old Abbey-gail Lukas, 10 men and women are planting thick cuttings of a plant locally known as Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in circles three meters apart.

The Scientist Staff
Mar 31, 2006
Restoring Natural Capital
Courtesy of M. Powell

Working for Water in South Africa

The sides of the Baviaanskloof ("Baboon Canyon") in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province range from very steep to vertical. Halfway up a 45-degree slope, under the supervision of spirited 19-year-old Abbey-gail Lukas, 10 men and women are planting thick cuttings of a plant locally known as Spekboom (Portulacaria afra) in circles three meters apart.

Spekboom is the characteristic ground-cover plant of subtropical thicket in this area. A healthy patch of it is growing 500 meters away, but where Abigail's crew is working the earth is bare, as dry and rough as sandpaper. Pick up a stone and it will burn your hand in an instant. A century of overgrazing by goats and sheep has left only a scattering of standing canopy trees, the jacket plums (Pappea capensis). The root systems of these trees are now unprotected and are cooking slowly underground. Some have already shriveled to grey skeletons and keeled over. Desertification is just one short step away.

Abigail's team has to carry the cuttings, 10 kilos per person at a time, from the nearest dirt road half a mile away. They are paid 40 rand ($6.60, US) a day. They would like more money, but in a region where extreme poverty is commonplace, they say they feel lucky to be working. "I am learning so much about our native plants, for me it is a pleasure to work here," says Cedric 'Sappie' Kleinbooi, in halting but precise English. Several of his colleagues look decidedly skeptical. "The job is nice, but I don't like going up and down the mountain," says Tersia Noubous.

Working for Water employs the team. WfW is a flagship program of postapartheid South Africa that seeks to marry ecological and economic goals. It has become the model for similar programs there, including Working for Wetlands and Working on Fire. Abigail's team is part of a pilot project to establish yet another potential offshoot, Working for Woodlands. Over the past 10 years, WfW has employed tens of thousands of people and has cost the South African taxpayer $450 million.

Saving The World Since 1995

It all began with a question to Guy Preston in 1995: "I have 25 million rand [$4 million, US]. Can you spend it by the end of the year?" This is how Kader Asmal, former minister for water affairs and forestry in Nelson Mandela's first postapartheid South African government, remembers launching the campaign.

Spekboom plantings on
a South African farm

Preston's big idea was that South Africa's water resources, under critical pressure from rising population and increasing luxury consumption, could be significantly restored by clearing alien invasive plants. Studies had long suggested that these thirsty natural enemies - ranging from Australian acacias and eucalypts to American cacti - were consuming much more water than the indigenous vegetation they replaced. Clear the aliens, Preston argued, and stream flow would increase, while indigenous biodiversity and ecosystems, also severely stressed by the intruders, would flourish.

But who would do the clearing, and how would it be paid for? Preston and Asmal saw a chance to combine several political priorities of the new government in "one ballsy program," as the former minister puts it. "Conservation is a middle class affair in most countries," he says.

In contrast, Asmal and Preston decided to offer the "poorest of the poor" two-year contracts to clear alien plants, using slash-hooks, chainsaws, herbicide and other biocontrol methods, at a minimal but living wage. Beyond restoring vital natural capital assets, WfW's goals include agricultural, socioeconomic, and developmental elements. Its management has taken up issues such as AIDS, sex education, and childcare, overcoming the pervasive legacy of South Africa's racist past - and now coffin production. Preston's cell phone screen shows an image of a coffin made of chipboard. "This is from our Eco-Friendly Coffins pilot project," he says. "It gives the poor a chance to bury their dead with dignity, without paying extortionate prices."

Results Flow

The ambitions have led admirers and detractors alike to say that sometimes WfW is "trying to save the world on a single budget." In 2004-2005, the WfW annual budget had grown to 414 million rand ($68 million, US), and it employed 32,000 people. It has cleared more than one million hectares of alien vegetation since its inception. The anecdotal evidence for its success is extensive, with many accounts of rivers running where no water had been seen for many years.

"It is recognized as a world leader in its field," says Asmal. Not everyone is so enthusiastic, however. "As an engineering argument for water, the program is stupid," says economist Beatrice Conradie. "It costs 100 rand investment in public funds for every 20 rands' worth of water restored." Christo Marais, one of WfW's longest-serving senior executives, strongly contests this figure, but the evidence on water valuation remains inconclusive. Conradie concedes that it "does provide wage employment, but 30,000 people are making a dent of perhaps half a percent in our unemployment figures."

From an ecological perspective, Patricia Holmes, who did an external audit for WfW in 2003, is also sharply critical of the program, though she recognizes significant improvements have been made in recent years. "It all started in such a rush that there was no strategic ecological plan," says Holmes. "They had to spend money immediately, and this was ecologically disastrous. Instead of focusing on the areas worst-affected by aliens, and working systematically, they spread the program far too wide across the country for political reasons."

Marais "absolutely agrees" that strategic planning was lacking at the outset, but he says he would do it the same way again today. "If we had waited five years to get all the plans and science in place we would not have got the political buy-in and budget."

Although record keeping at the beginning was "simply abominable," says Barbara Schreiner, senior executive manager at the Water and Forestry Affairs Department, "monitoring has improved significantly, but we're not there yet. But please remember that WfW was born at a time of great turmoil in this country. And while we still face very complex challenges to get the management right, they are not impossible to resolve."

The general consensus is that the program's worst flaw has been allowing some cleared areas to revert to their previous infested state, or worse, owing to inadequate follow-up operations. "This is a cardinal sin," says Preston. "I don't even know how often this has happened, and it's shocking that I don't know, because of poor reporting and bad management."

This lack of data bedevils attempts by scientists to assess the program, according to a collection of papers published in 2004 by the South African Journal of Science that is nevertheless positive in its overall evaluation of WfW.1 "What we need is hard data, paired catchments, experiments over 10 years," says David Le Maitre of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, who contributed to the journal and whose work is often cited by WfW as evidence of its success. "An opportunity has been missed here. The program is having a hydrological effect, but we don't know how much, and it depends crucially on the quality of follow-up work, and on getting private landowners to continue clearances."

Nosipho Jezile, chief operating officer with the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, who has worked with WfW, concedes that its development has been "a very tricky process." But "in its defense," she says, "it has been very innovative. The new South Africa is making history here."

1. "Working for Water: the research contributions," South African Journal of Science, 100(1/2), 2004.