Water in the Midlands (and the World)

Winterskloof residents were without water for three weeks this summer. Mpophomeni folk often have no water for days. In Dargle, subdivided farms now house too many families (or livestock) and the streams that trickle through the forest simply cannot cope with all their needs. Many areas already have water restrictions and official measures are in place to curb water use in autumn this year.

winterskloof water leak

Judy Bell, chairperson of Winterskloof Conservancy, says “Our 19 day piped water crisis in Winterskloof will pale into comparison with a drought-enforced savings programme.   Issues that will exacerbate this problem include the reduction in minimum property size, for example in the uMngeni Municipality where the agricultural minimum size is being reduced from 20 ha to 5 ha. Can you imagine the strain on the water supplies where users pump from rivers in rural areas? The demand now increases by four times due to the subdivision of the land, but the capacity of the RESOURCE from which they draw the water remains the same or reduces as it gets further hammered by more pollution, more damage from development, more infestation by alien invasive plants, more encroachment by development.”

rubbish banks of Dargle River

The River Walks undertaken by Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) volunteers over the past few years have highlighted the state of the uMngeni catchment. Many landowners pay no heed to the legal 32m buffer zone requirement, with kikuyu pastures, cottages or cattle kraals right on the banks. It would appear that some riverside dwellers do not recognise their roles as custodians of this natural resource or realise that their actions impact on millions of others. Mike Beresford has made a big effort to restore the riverine areas on his property, removing invasive plants and clearing plantations along the banks. He comments, “I can see the difference after knocking away for the last seven years at the bramble and St John’s Wort. Plenty of natural vegetation is coming back, and I have noticed water birds moving into the pools and evidence of otters. I think the wildlife prefers the more open area. It looks so much nicer too.”

mike beresford spraying on river

All water is connected – so those who feel fortunate to have a borehole that still pumps plenty of water should consider the fact that this ground water would be replenishing nearby seeps and streams, before they water their rosebushes. Harvesting rainwater from your roof is a good idea, as is digging swales to keep moisture in your garden, but we are not able to make MORE rain. We have to use what there is wisely.

Penelope Malinga of the Mpophomeni Conservation Group comments “Those of us who have water tanks, have queues of people at our gates with small jugs asking for some water to cook with. I wish more people would think long term and make the investment in water harvesting and self-sufficiency.” Ecological Consultant, Kevan Zunckel worked out that if 1 million homes between Durban and Pietermaritzburg installed water tanks, the water stored and used over a full season would equal the capacity of Midmar Dam and there would have been no need to build the Spring Grove Dam in Rosetta. He estimates that the return on your investment in a water-harvesting system is about five years, “after which it’s free”.

mpop water tank Penz and Trevar

While we naturally focus on our local issues, we should take heed of the experiences in other places. Even major capitals are not immune – as we are seeing in Sao Paulo. Three main elements have converged to make the present drought in Brazil the worst in its recorded history: anthropogenic global warming, rampant deforestation of the Amazon rainforest and gross mismanagement of water resources and government corruption.

The issues sound familiar in the Midlands – aging infrastructure, Climate Change, mismanagement. Building more dams is not the answer either – particularly if no extra rain falls. To try and meet rising demand the Smithfield Dam is now planned for the uMkhomazi River.  “The uMkho is the last major undammed river in KZN, now it too will be ruined. Can’t we leave anything natural? Can’t humans be less greedy?” laments DUCT’s Penny Rees. The Sappi Saiccor factory near the coast uses this river and already has had to shut down during early summer due to the low flows. With a dam upstream one can assume they may be permanently shut down?

uMkhomazi river

In South Africa 84% of river ecosystems are threatened, with 54% critically endangered. The Greater uMngeni River Catchment is of strategic significance to South Africa as it supports the third largest economic hub in the country, through the supply of water necessary to deliver water and sanitation services for social and economic needs to over 4 million people. Water is central to food and energy security. The Midlands is located within a National Freshwater Priority Area and for this reason, our water resources, including the grasslands and forests on which they rely, need to be protected.

What can you do? Volunteer for DUCT, join the “Save Midmar Campaign”. Don’t waste a drop. Don’t run taps while washing your hands, collect the water while you wait for it to heat up, drain bathwater into the veggie patch, take short sharp showers or enjoy basin baths by candlelight. Whatever you do, don’t wash your car or driveway with a hosepipe or water your flower garden. Learn which industries that are the greediest water consumers and avoid supporting them. If you are fortunate to live alongside a river – clear the invasive plants and let natural vegetation return– wildlife will love you too!

water trough

Judy Bell, also Chair of the Midlands Conservancies Forum, concludes “The issue is that we are in a crisis, the twin disaster of water and energy have merged. The situation is being exacerbated by ageing infrastructure, poor or no governance and we need to focus on sustainable solutions – self-sufficiency, resilience and more renewable supplies. We need water to run coal-fired power stations, which we don’t have and when the water is used, it becomes polluted for those living in the area and their quality of life and health is affected. We have to make the break from “business as usual” and all need to be involved in making a difference. When the rainfall is late or lower, which is becoming the norm due to Climate Change, there is no point in a dam, a pump station or a pipe. We have to use less and reuse every drop to make it go further.”

Everyone can contribute. Never doubt that small actions add up to have a real impact.

kilgobbin stream crop


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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