May Day 20: The uMngeni Ends Here

A very long, but for me (Pandora), important blog today.  The music is still playing in the camp below where I am sitting so I know the team is not yet in bed.  It’s been a good day.  Tomorrow will test my strength.  Looking over the dam wall to see no river anymore has hit me hard.  It will pick up when we reach the Duzi, but I know the water is dirty and just a shadow of what the uMngeni should look like.  As Penny said earlier today.  The uMngeni ends here.  I have tears running down my cheeks.

You would be amazed to see where I am sitting!  I have a kind of 360 degree view of the valley area around the dam wall – can you imagine this…a sturdy plastic picnic chair positioned on the top of the carefully contructed ‘fuse plug’ that extends and protects the Nagel dam wall from a one in hundred year flood. It’s been a dry season. Before me the flickering fire of our fire just illuminates the army tent pitched on the shores of Nagel dam.  If I look east I can see bright orange stars scattered over a black velvet landscape. The early morning light will reveal little rural homesteads dotted about the hills.  Tonight it is as if the heavens have come down to earth.  Behind me I feel the presence of great sacred mountain, Mkhambathini.  There is a cool breeze blowing up from the valley floor tunnelling along the dam wall and over the dike.

Tonight the team are the revellers! Forgotten is the head banging house music from last night’s picnic site visitors.  A Johnny Clegg CD is playing…I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart…under African skies…  Ian Bailey in his capacity as DUCT director has joined us, taking water samples with Penny (Ian is also section head of biological sciences at Umgeni Water), offering to paddle us around the dam and at the end of the day, braaing a delicious fare for the team!  We are lucky to have such versatile DUCT supporters!

The team members (and Ian) are all around the fire.  The acoustics are perfect and somehow the music seems right and appropriate and the rhythms blend in with the night sounds.  There is a sudden silence as the track comes to the end, a shout of appreciation goes up from the team and the next track hits another groove… I listen to the sax solo… Preven calls me to supper. Later I look for Penny and find her standing with Penz and Preven along the shoreline.  “An ancient Indian belief is that each place has a guardian spirit that takes on an animal form in the land”, she says.   From the valley cleft I follow the skyline silhouetted against a dark sky and the perfect reflected image in the glass still water.  ‘Skalami’ and ‘Imposana’ rise up from the hills and merge with the ridge to form a huge dark crocodile.  It’s been another special day.

Mxolisi Mnyandu, works for Umgeni Water at Reservoir Hills and previously at the dam for six years. Penny and Wendy take an early tour of the dam wall.

Preven and I prepare for the schools programme.  Penz is not feeling well today.  Mike and John are off to fix the breadwagon’s (fourth) punctured tyre.

The schools programme goes well.  I am pleased.  We play some games to warm up.  ‘Hello my name is ….  and this is how I stretch.’  My tired muscles enjoy this game tremendously (give and take a few extreme stretches!)

Dudu Duma of Umgeni Water presents her lesson to the children.  I can’t follow as its in Zulu but I know from the questions that she has her finger on the pulse, that this dialogue is appreciated.

We go on an alien hunt.  Sibusiso Nginga, DUCT river care team supervisor for Nagel dam area is with us.  We find lots of aliens all around the sportsfield where we are gathered.  One of the teachers asks, “Why are there so many aliens in Msinsi”  I am sure there is an answer but I can’t quite find a response that sounds right.  Perhaps there isn’t one.

Six schools take part in the activities and we have a range of children from grade one to grade twelve.  Once again I am amazed at how well these schools and ages integrate.

I am so relieved when Wendy and Nkosinathi finally arrive with the tea and lunch!  (Wendy Ncgobo is our DUCT Education Officer and Nkosinathi works in the PMB office) Wendy has brought her little girl, she has grown and is so cute!

Today I have Mtini and Mo so I can do the story with the little ones. (Thank you Norma Bodie for making these precious puppets)  The children cannot resist sitting right up close and I begin the story of Mtini’s journey.  They help hold the river snake, Inkanyanba’s tail in the sacred wetlands as he journey’s with Mtini and Mo to take a message to the sea.  I hold up my hand and we repeat the message – do what is safe, remain committed, have respect, be accountable and encourage one another, have a positive attitude and remember we are all connected to the great web of life – a part of the river.  The children like the story.  I am pleased.

Arriving back in camp in time to hear Penny interviewed by Siphiwe and Nontokozo was a treat as we stood a spellbound audience listening to the story of our own walk.

Later water samples taken at the gauging weir at the entrance to the dam ‘under our belt’ we stood on the dam wall where earlier this morning Penny had learnt more about Nagel from Mxolisi.

“So you are really concerned about the fact that there is no water coming out of Nagel dam.” I ask.  It is much later and I’m starting to put today’s blog together.  Ian Bailey is sitting beside me atop the dike as dusk is falling.

Apart from working for Umgeni water section head biological
sciences, Ian is a director of DUCT.  I ask him about his work. “I manage the hydrobiology laboratory” he says.  “What sort of work do you do? I ask.  “Basically monitoring the rivers and dams in the Umgeni water designated areas – Stanger to Port Shepstone and westwards to Mooi River”, he says. “That’s where we supply drinking water to.” Umgeni is the catchment implementation agent for Department of Water Affairs, essentially the bulk water supplier.  “We safeguard drinking water now although we used to be responsible for catchment management for all the areas.  Now DWA is responsible for everything – unfortunately we would like to do a lot more – we used to do a lot more” Ian says.

“They brought me over to establish a regional water authority.  In England that authority includes everything including catchment management, pollution prevention, drinking water and sewage treatment.  That’s what we thought that we would do.  DWA is now the authority and have taken on that role – they are doing the best they can but they do not have the capacity.”

Ian tells me that  it is now Umgeni’s responsibility to see to drinking water mainly in dams and rivers and that they now manage two sewage works by contract, Darville and the Howick Sewage works.  (This is down from the 20 that they used to manage)  DWA used to run all the water treatment works (drinking water) and sewage works before 1994.  I asked how they functioned then.  “They had a much larger more efficient staff,” Ian says.  In those days the rural areas weren’t serviced with water and sewage, at least those areas are now getting water and sewage works although they have grown a hundred times bigger.  We are all working together to try and solve the problem.”

I ask why DWA doesn’t seem to be on top of things – about the source of funding for the work that needs to be done. “It is not just about the money,” Ian says.  “That comes from central government.  There are posts across the board that they just can’t fill and this is the reason for lack of capacity, sometimes they end up appointing people without any experience.”  I think back to the conversation of last night with Riaz Jogiat of Umgungundlovu Municipality about the low salary scales for highly qualified staff in the biodiversity sector.  I wonder if the two issues are not interrelated.

“There doesn’t seem to be any compliance and monitoring happening,” I say. We switch topics back to the late afternoon sight of a dry valley floor below the dam wall.

“The government owns all water like it owns all beaches throughout the whole country. The water act says that there must be environmental flows below dams.  These are very important. There are six official listed water uses, the two most important ones being drinking water and the other one, environmental use of water – to keep the environment alive. It is called the ecological reserve.  All rivers systems in South Africa are supposed to have had  a reserve assessment done.” I listen intently to Ian as he imparts this information.  “It should have been done,” he says.

“Like at this dam, all over SA studies should have been done to say that you should release a certain amount of cumecs per second.” Ian has to spell it out for me.  I’ve never heard of cumecs!  “ Better still”, he continues, “there should be a reserve study to determine the ecological release – it is legislated to be done country wide.  DWA are not implementing their own water legislation.” Ian adds. “What are the implications.” I ask.  I already know the answer, I’ve seen it happen to the river in the valley where I live. “Well the river will die – You saw what happens.  Just by looking over the dam wall you can see what happens.  There is no flow and the river gets completely choked up with reed and there is no aquatic life left in the river.  The channel is now below the silt weir.  The river has stopped flowing and tomorrow you will be walking down the river in the river bed”

Ian tells me about the Dusi canoe marathon, the passionate people that have worked towards achieving a well studied river system here on the uMgeni. I learn that just about all this water is allocated for human use – industry, drinking water, irrigation and that in a drought situation there is a two year supply from Inanda dam.  I hear about the aquaducts and the taps installed for local rural communities.  We talk about the social implications – going down to the river is a whole social scene a source of community cohesion.  If there is sufficient release the dilution is great enough for some domestic uses – Ian cites the Tugela as an example.  “What we are saying is that they should release water that is required for the river to function, it’s not wasted water” Ian says.

“What would you like to see happen?” I ask.  “To do a ecological reserve determination – there are methods set down in legislation. A full assessment is a very complicated thing if you do it thoroughly.  But there are various levels – you can do it in the afternoon with the necessary experts sitting around the table.  They should do that roughly all over the country and it is likely to be eighty percent right.  Then there must be the will to implement it.” Ian says.  “What would the implementation entail?”I ask. “Every dam would have a regime of releases mirroring the natural rainfall patterns and/or floods”.  Ian says.  I hope so.

“That is not what is happening between Albert falls and Nagel dam.  It’s called reverse hydrograph.  Water is released mainly in winter.  It confuses the hell out of the biophsere in the river.”  I think about the beautiful section of river that we have just come through and the high Mini SASS scores.

Our final conversation turns to solutions to building capacity within the water sector.  “One of the few universities that offers aquatic sciences and aquatic resource management is the University of Zululand” Ian says.   He tells me the story of a young intern from this university.  He grew up in St Lucia and had always wanted to study aquatic environment – from  the little school that he attended, he managed to get qualified with an honours degree.  “Education does work,” Ians says referring to what I had just said about the DUCT education programme and Mtini’s message of encouragement.  “Yes,” says Ian. “ Someone inspired him.  He is the future head of water affairs.”

Ian tells me about DUCT’s capacity and supportive role through advising those requiring assistance in the fields that DUCT operates in.  Highly qualified scientists, engineers and so on.  He mentions the vision of DUCT Chairman, Dave Still and how it inspired the successful work that DUCT is now doing.  “People give up”  Ian says “Its very easy to think – what is the use, it is just me – what can  I do on my own?”

I think back to the children grouped close around me earlier today listening to the story I told about Mtini’s journey.  I think of Mtini’s ‘high five’  I hope that somehow, someway we’ve inspired a young water professional today.  Perhaps a future head of water affairs.

Written by: Pandora Long


About Nikki Brighton

I live in Howick, between the river and the hills. I enjoy pre-dawn walks in the streets with my dog, sitting on the veranda with crochet and tea, and harvesting vegetables outside the kitchen door.
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4 Responses to May Day 20: The uMngeni Ends Here

  1. You have me in tears too. It took me a while to work out what the river bed photo was, as it was so different from anything you had sent me before. I have used it three times to make sure everyone sees and understands it. Much love to you all as you search for the river today.

  2. Jane Weston says:

    Interesting to note that tonight is the Pleiadean Ring of Fire Annular Eclipse (11.47pm UT/GMT) over China, Taiwan, Japan and the Pacific and hearkens back to 1994 and forward to 2031 in terms of its effects. Many of us see a major sea change in human consciousness and this eclipse focusses on this shift with a magnifying glass – for those of us who want a better world for all and are not motivated purely by a pursuit of power and money. Alcyone the brightest star speaks of higher vision, a clear reasoning mind that can cut away illusion and glamorous untruths, creative imagination and impartial judgement as we move into the murky waters of the next months and years and as the river is showing its guests. Seems like you are planting great seeds in young eager minds and it will be they that bear the fruit of your dedication and efforts and their bright vision.

  3. Stefanie Schutte says:

    Dear Pandora and all.
    The National Water Act, the legislation that requires that an ecological reserve will be established, which is essential for hydrological ecosystem services and the multiple functions that ultimately benefit humans, came into effect in 1998. It is now 2012, 14 year later. Only few ecological reserves have been established. I hope that DWAF will put emphasis on implementing this legislation, including giving deadlines when it will be implemented in the Mgeni catchment. The University of KwaZulu-Natal, right here in Pietermaritzburg has an excellent Hydrology Department, that could possibly be approached by DWAF, as lots of research has been done specifically in this catchment.

    All the best for your last week and lots of love,
    Stefanie Schutte

  4. Jan Phelan says:

    Hi River Walkers, I have followed your blog each day with great interest, and I cried with you when the uMngeni ended. Your photos, poems, blogs, stories, humour are beautifully shared, and really sincere. I never cease to be amazed by the number of groups you make contact with, and especially the children. Via this blog site, even those of us not near the river feel that we are in touch, that we are one and that we are connected and we go with you all the way. Thanks to Nikki and those who made this communication and sharing possible. Your walk is sending ripples of a different sort in many directions and who knows how far these could go? Maybe we must believe in miracles, and maybe we must believe that just maybe one day the river could flow again below Nagel Dam? Whilst on a trail in Mfolozi Game Reserve in the early 1970’s, I was privileged to see a small wall of water coming down the dry Mfolozi river bed because there had been rain in the catchment and the river was starting to flow again – it was the most incredible sight and one that is impossible to forget, and reading your blog made me remember it again. Strength for tomorrow!

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