Ten percent of South Africa’s land area, mostly in the high mountain catchments along the eastern escarpment, generates 50% of the volume of water in all our river systems. This was identified in a substantial research document produced in 2013 by WWF-SA, the Water Research Commission and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, which identified 22 strategic water source areas (SWSAs) in South Africa.

From 2016, a WWF Nedbank Green Trust-funded project set about obtaining legislative protection for South Africa’s SWSAs. From this catalytic funding the project has significantly expanded, with progress made in terms of policy being put in place for the legal protection of water, and legislation gathering momentum.

While the concept of SWSAs is well established in South Africa, until now they have never been properly recognised and included in legislation. ‘Our goal is therefore to protect these areas with whatever legal mechanisms are open to us,’ says Samir Randera-Rees, Programme Manager of WWF-SA’s Water Source Areas Programme. ‘To this end we asked the the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER) to do a full review of all of South Africa’s water legislation. The review established that while there is some mention of SWSAs in the legislation, they were not afforded much legal protection at all.

‘However, existing clauses could be used, particularly under the National Environmental Management Act, Clause 24 (2A). Under this clause, we saw the opportunity to have SWSAs declared as environmentally sensitive areas and we have been working with the Department of the Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF), the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) to achieve this,’ explains Randera-Rees.

Important headway has been made. In 2020 the SWSAs will be recognised as an essential part of South Africa’s water security in the draft National Water Security Framework, and the SWSAs have been prioritised in the five-year action plans of DEFF Minister Barbara Creecy. She has created a directorate to drive the protection of 11 of the 22 SWSAs by 2025.

WWF is one of the few organisations working explicitly towards SWSA protection, with support from key partners such as SANBI. Randera-Rees says WWF participates in every water forum and has driven the mandate for SWSAs to be legislated over many years. ‘It is the drum we continuously beat, and while we don’t claim to be the sole driver of this, we have held the space very effectively, and driven the mandate. We take pride in the fact that this is gaining traction.’

Water-stressed South Africa faces several major threats to its SWSAs, including:

  • Mining, coal-mining in particular;
  • Malfunctioning wastewater treatment works;
  • Industrial pollution and human effluent in our rivers;
  • Land degradation and soil erosion from poor farming practices, water pollution and agricultural runoff from piggeries, dairies and fertilisers – with nitrates and phosphates entering our river systems and causing eutrophication and algal bloom;
  • Invasive alien vegetation , such as pine, eucalyptus and black wattle trees, which are consuming between 3% and 7% of the country’s water resources; and
  • Unmanaged forestry: forestry reduces streamflow, as plantations have deep root systems that significantly reduce the amount of water coming out of the WSAs. The permitted location and management of plantations therefore needs to be carefully assessed.

All initiatives around SWSAs and environmentally sensitive areas are aligned with other WWF-SA and WWF Nedbank Green Trust programmes, such as the biodiversity stewardship initiative to legally proclaim privately- or community-owned land as protected environments and nature reserves.

‘They go hand in hand,’ says Randera-Rees. In the Enkangala Drakensberg, for example, abandoned coal mines are leaching acid water into this SWSA, polluting water at the source. The proclamation of protected environments here helps to prevent the granting of prospecting or mining licences in SWSAs where the risk to South Africa’s water supply is too great.

‘We also have alien tree clearing projects in partnership with Working for Water and corporates, such as the SAB Hops Alien Tree Clearing Project in the Outeniqua mountains near George in the Western Cape.

‘And we have farming projects to improve livestock farming methods, as well- managed grazing is highly compatible with SWSAs and the surrounding grasslands, while poorly managed grazing is detrimental. One of our projects is in the communal grazing areas of the Eastern Cape’s Matatiele district in the western Drakensberg. It is helping communal farmers to manage their rangelands and cattle more productively, and at the same time this is helping to reduce erosion and land degradation, which negatively impacts on the water supply.’

How we manage our water at every level is not something that can be put off. It is imperative to protect our country’s key water source areas and all forms of water supply and it is the business of every South African to support this.