Support for successful ecological infrastructure scheme grows beyond R1bn

9th March 2012 By: Megan van Wyngaardt - Creamer Media Contributing Editor Online

The South African Department of Environment Affairs’ (DEA’s) and the Department of Water Affairs’ (DWA’s) Working for Water (WfW) programme, which eradicates invasive alien species in the country, has been dubbed a success since its inception.

However, in recent years, it seems that the programme has slowed down and is not delivering the same results it did under the late Kadar Asmal, who started the programme in 1995. Engineering News looks at the current progress of this programme and the effect it has had on the country, as well as the opportunities it has created.

The programme was started to reduce what was then perceived to be the single biggest threat to the country’s biological biodiversity and water security – invasive alien plants (IAPs), which intensify the effect of fires and floods and increase soil erosion, while also diverting water from more productive uses, and impeding industries, such as agriculture, fisheries, transport, recreation and water supply, causing billions of rands of damage to South Africa’s economy every year.

The DEA explains that invasive alien species are plants, animals and microbes that are introduced into countries, and then out-compete the indigenous species, and states that, of the estimated 9 000 plants introduced to the country, 198 are currently classified as being invasive. It is estimated that these plants cover about 10% (19-million hectares) of the country and the problem is growing at an exponential rate.

Since its inception in 1995, the programme has cleared more than two-million hectares of invasive alien plants, providing jobs and training for more than 25 000 people a year from among the most marginalised sectors of society. Of these, 54% are women, the department states.

DEA WfW natural resource management programmes head of operations Dr Christo Marais tells Engineering News that WfW has in fact grown exponentially over the last number of years. “One should not look at WfW in isolation but in the context of a suite of natural resource management programmes, with exceptional support from both Minister Edna Molewa and Deputy Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi, and Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

More Resources
Marais points out that, since 1995, the budget of R25-million has grown to R1.1-billion for WfW and R383.5-million for Working on Fire in the 2012/13 financial year. “Never in the history of our country have natural resource management agencies in government had this kind of financial and political support,” he adds.

However, there are some significant monetary challenges. “The estimated costs of controlling invasive plants, restoring degraded land, implementing an integrated veld and forest fire management programme and restoring and maintaining degraded wetlands and riparian zones are orders of magnitude (about R57-billion) more than what government is currently investing, and this is a challenge that might hamper growth in industry,” he adds.

Even though the budget is not entirely sufficient, Marais points out that government and society cannot expect the taxpayer to carry the full responsibility for natural resource restoration and maintenance. “It is the primary responsibility of land users, owners . . . to look after the land that they are using. I often refer to on-site and off-site ecosystem services.

“Society can generally contribute to the restoration and maintenance of off-site services, which include services such as watershed services and carbon sequestration, while on-site services, such as grazing, are the responsibility of land users,” Marais notes.

He adds that industry and land users will have to come to the party as well. “Govern-ment cannot be expected to take full respons-ibility for the long-term sustainability of our renewable natural resources,” he says

Further, the water trading account is partly funding WfW, while some water management agencies are also investing their own resources. “But we need more,” says Marais.

In 2011, a paper published in Biological Invasions on the impact of biological control of invasives, by Drs Willem de Lange and Brian van Wilgen, suggested that the water lost owing to invasive alien plants every year was worth R6.5-billion. “Without the intervention of WfW though, it would have been R41.7-billion,” notes Marais. De Lange and Van Wilgen also estimate the full value of the ecosystem services (all the various programmes) for South Africa to be R152-billion a year.

Further, he points out that not all water lost to invasive alien plants is usable. In a paper, written and published in Water SA by engineering consulting practice Aurecon’s Dr James Cullis, water resources management leader André Görgens and Marais, on the effects of invasive alien plants in mountain catchments and riparian zones, they found that around 4% of registered water use is being lost as a result of invasive alien trees in these areas alone. “If left unchecked, it can increase to 16%. The study was based on an earlier assessment of the extent of invasive alien plants. With the latest data at our disposal, I’m sure that the current losses are much higher,” he adds.

Developing the Programme
The latest significant development related to the Natural Resource Management programmes, which include WfW and its subprogrammes, Working for Land, Working for Forests and Wildlife Economy, is the move in responsibility from the Department of Water Affairs to the Department of Environmental Affairs.

“As the DEA is more broadly responsible for natural resource management, it was decided to transfer the administration of the programmes. One would ask whether this could have a negative effect on WfW in that the original motivation for its launch was the impact of invasive alien trees on water resources. As the two departments report to Minister Molewa, this challenge was easily overcome through the signing of a memorandum of agreement. We are still working very closely with our colleagues responsible for water resource planning, water conservation and demand management, water infrastructure and the regional water resource management staff to ensure the optimum allocation of WfW resources. The agreement between the two departments focuses on the effects of land management practices on watershed services,” he explains.

Further, Marais says that South Africa’s environmental infrastructure cannot really compare to that of Europe. “However, if we compare ourselves to developing countries in Africa and Central and South America, we are not doing too badly at all,” he notes.

Once in place and properly enforced, it is expected that the legislation related to the management of invasive species, the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act and the National Environmental and Biodiversity Act Regulations, will make a significant contribution to unlocking land user resources for the management and containment of invasive alien plants.

Further, WfW is collaborating with the Department of Energy, the South African National Energy Development Institute and parastatal Eskom to delve into the potential of biomass from invasive alien plants and bush-encroachment-to-energy. If successful, this programme has the potential to change the face of WfW and Landcare.

A third new development is the eco- furniture factories. “We have recently opened one at Farleigh, near Knysna, in partnership with South African National Parks,” says Marais.” The biggest potential for the eco-furniture factories comes from the large eucalyptus and other tree species in the riverine areas that can be turned into saw timber for products such as school desks and other furniture.

WfW also recently launched a land user incentives programme which aims to encourage land owners to make a concerted effort to use the programme’s investment and to unlock private sector resources for the control of invasive alien plants and the restoration and maintenance of degraded land.

“All these initiatives are brand new and we are waiting to for the initial outcomes of the lead projects,” Marais notes.

Job Creation
The latest Development Bank of Southern Africa, Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies and Industrial Development Corporation report, ‘Green Jobs: An estimate of the direct employment potential of a greening South African economy’ states that there is potential to create as many as 230 000 job opportunities in natural resource management.

“This includes biomass from invasive alien plants and bush-encroachment-to-energy potential. Without the latter, we are talking about 190 000 jobs. We need these jobs to restore and maintain our natural resources in the country. To fund these jobs though, the market will need a yearly turnover of R57-billion,” Marais says.

“We have a massive demand for the restor-ation of degraded landscapes and, on top of this, invasive alien plants are spreading faster than we can clear. Without biological control, proper legislation and proper enforce- ment thereof in place, I’m afraid we are fighting a losing battle,” he notes.

Marais points out that it does not mean the departments cannot deal with the challenge. “The ‘Working for’ programmes are constantly evolving to manage the challenges we face in order to unlock other resources. One such opportunity is the unlocking of resources through the use of biomass from the clearing of dense stands of invasive plants. Biomass-to-energy also has exciting potential and shows a lot of promise,” Marais adds.

To date, the WfW programme has cleared 2.1-million hectares of IAPs, with follow-up treatment of the areas. The department estimates that it still needs to control and clear another 19-million hectares in the next few years.

Beyond Working for Water
The DEA states that WfW sister programme Working for Wetlands needs to grow as well. It is estimated that between 35% and 50% of South Africa’s wetlands have been lost or degraded.

This loss has been accompanied by a corresponding decline in the ecosystem services provided by wetlands, such as flood attenuation, water quality enhancement, groundwater recharge and provision of food and fibre. The broader consequences of large-scale wetland loss include reduced food security; reduction in biodiversity; desertification; increased vulnerability to natural disasters, especially floods and droughts; lost livelihoods; and diminished water security.

“By 2025, South Africa will be one of 14 African countries classified as being subject to water scarcity, defined as less than 1 000 m3 for each person a year. In such a context, the services provided by wetlands become all the more valuable,” Marais says.

The national wetland inventory has to date mapped 119 120 wetlands, totalling 4,2-million hectares, or 3,3% of the country’s surface area. Working for Wetlands fresh- water programme director John Dini says applying the estimate that 35% to 50% of these wetlands are partially or totally degraded produces an estimate of between 41 000 and 59 000 wetlands that may require human intervention to improve their health and integrity. “At the moment, the programme intervenes in only about 100 each year,” he adds.

Further, data from the Advanced Fire Information System, which is run by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), has estimated that on average some 2.4-million hectares burn each year. Working on Fire supports land users and fire management agencies in some 500 000 ha of these.

All these interventions are aimed at improving the functioning and ecosystem services from wetlands, grasslands and savanna.

Positive Feedback
“As a role model for creating cooperation between poverty relief and conservation efforts, the WfW programme is still entirely relevant. I am not aware of another govern- ment programme that has been able to sustain its employment aims over such a long period, while making a meaningful con- tribution to conservation as a whole,” says conservationist programme Touching the Earth Lightly founder Stephen Lamb.

Nevertheless, Lamb agrees that there is more that can be done. “I have been dis- appointed by the lack of support offered to rural community-run initiatives focusing on the creative reuse of the alien invasive cleared. WfW desperately needs to find and protect a space in which creativity and creative thinking around this concept can flourish, he says.

He notes that creative ideas do not travel well through the bureaucracy of government systems. “They generally die in such a system. This is sad, as it was a creative idea that started the WfW programme in the first place.

“I would strongly suggest that the WfW programme look at initiating projects that promote the resale and upcycling of suit-able, harvested alien invasive timber for use as contemporary-designed furniture, low-cost housing, infrastructure for large-scale events, outdoor ecoclassrooms, off-grid clinics and day-care centres in rural communities. There is so much more that can be made from this timber. This is the future growth area of the WfW programme,” Lamb adds.

He feels that, in terms of exploiting the potential socioeconomic value of harvested alien invasive timber and using it as a vehicle to assist government in meeting service delivery needs of poor communities in rural areas, the WfW programme has only started scratching the surface.

“This can change, and I hope that it does,” he concludes.