Pandora Long shares about this inspiring account of the past three months with the Aller River Eco-Champs – a most incredible journey with seven young people in pursuit of ‘Taking back our rivers’.
Paulo Candotti, chairman of Ethekwini Conservancies Forum, conceptualised the “Take Back Our Rivers” project
as one of three such initiatives that will see biodiversity conservation, ecological infrastructure restoration and eco-systems goods and services revitalisation in the eThekwini region. The other two are “Take Back Our Grasslands” and “Take Back Our Nature Reserves.” An Ethekwini Joint Partnership Project managed by Kloof Conservancy with Ethekwini Municipality as the funders and DUCT offering support around alien invasive clearance and the education, training and development and community education and awareness component.
My role is to give you some insights from a ‘Riverwalker’ who joined Penny’s team in 2012 to walk the uMgeni River Source to Sea. When we passed the murky Aller, at its confluence with the uMngeni river, I had no idea that four and half years later I would be asked to put together a framework for Eco-Champs training and capacity building to support river restoration, monitoring and community conservation education and awareness building along this river. Or did I? If you are interested in my question, I invite you to go back and read the story that informed the 2012 art campaign, read this blog and decide for yourself.
Penny and Preven, together with Mark Liptrot went on to walk the Aller on the 6th November 2015 and Penny wrote an Aller River Walk Report that made several recommendations. One of them was to appoint several Eco-Champs to champion the river! On the 10th October 2016, seven young Eco-champs from the Clermont/New Germany area were appointed to undertake monitoring and community education and awareness activities with ‘river communities’ along the river.
Called Phase I, the primary objective is to see the Aller River restored and a turn-around in unfriendly river behaviour by three different ‘river communities’ the New Germany Residents, The Industry Players and the Clermont Community. The project duration for the Eco-Champs work during phase 1 is six months with 45 days in total allocated to the Eco-champs work!
The pace was cracking starting with two full days induction, day one getting to understand the project, the Eco-champs role and responsibilities, the working parameters and the training programme and project schedule.
Day two started with the DVD of the uMngeni River Walk, contextualising the Aller River in the greater uMngeni Catchment. Listening to the story and finding our place in it. Getting to know one another better and getting to understand the level of participation required for the journey ahead.
Our journey continued by learning to work within communities to create a platform for meaningful change to take place, becoming aware of our own levels of awareness, of influence, of organisation and power relations. We started a process of community rural appraisal with some of the elders in the community. How do they see their place? How do they perceive the river? What are the challenges they are experiencing?
Getting to know the river, its benefits, its ecology and basic conservation started with our first walk down the Aller. Learning about miniSASS brought surprising new knowledge and experiences. Seeing how people disregarded the river brought our first feelings of sadness and withdrawal.
We learnt about water, visited Northern Waste Water Treatment Works, Umgeni Water Treatment Works at Reservoir Hills and Blue Lagoon to see where the uMngeni exits to the sea. We met new friends at Durban Green Hub and got to understand the broader context of a tourism vision for the Lower uMngeni Valley.
We celebrated Weed Buster Week by inviting New Germany residents and Clermont children to join us on a walk down the Aller, learning about Alien Invasive Plants and Ghost Moths from Mark Liptrot, being introduced to Mtini and Mo and their special brand of storytelling.
Monday 17th October was the day that the DUCT River Care Team started clearing and in an amazing display of community respect, and true to our river walk ethos, a Blessing Ceremony was held, with several local ministers from various congregations, councillors, community leaders and supporters attending to wish the two teams well.
The next day it was off to PMB and Howick to learn from the DUCT Education unit, the River Care Teams, Sewer Monitor teams and Mpophomeni Enviro-champs. A highlight of this interaction was to be taken through a door-to-door interview, just one of the many approaches that has made the Enviro-Champ project so successful, and on which the Eco-champs programme is modelled.
A stop at Midmar to learn about dams for water storage, the good the bad and the ugly (farmer who dammed the Mpushini River) and then for a first sight of Howick Falls, an understanding of the challenges of the people living at Shea Biszali and a glimpse of the valley as it makes its way down past Albert Falls to Nagel where all the outflow, bar just enough to generate the turbines that feed current to Nagle Dam, goes on to Umgeni Water at Reservoir Hills then to EThekwini’s Mount Moriah reservoir and on into the taps of the homes, business and industry in New Germany and homes in Clermont!
We are eight days into the project and ready to look at community education and awareness, community based social marketing and education approaches, forming Eco-clubs and Kidz clubs where we can bring about connection, understanding and action towards making meaningful change along the Aller River.
The focus of the Aller River Eco-champ training in November is Alien Invasive Species Identification with two days spent with the DUCT River Care Teams, getting practical experience in the field. A final assessment of ID skills brought a total of 32 species identified with many already ‘under the belt’.
A highlight of this week was the visit of Dr Elsa Lee, a social researcher from Cambridge University, who will be funding phase 2 of the Aller River Pilot Project. This extends the project for a further year and gives the Eco-Champ an additional role of community researchers.
One of the most sobering points in the project thus far was to witness the appalling state of the Aller River in ward 92 where we joined Dr Elsa Lee for a community ‘walk about’. It was clear that something was very horribly wrong, and not only with the river. Penny raised this state of affairs in 2015 (although reading her report and experiencing it first-hand were two very different experiences) What exactly was broken in the system, infrastructure, monitoring and support system for ensuring that the ‘product’ in the vast network of pipes that were marked on our Sewer line map got to its rightful destination at the WWTW’? Or was it the WWTW’s that was not working properly?
With these questions at the back of our minds the programme for December training started with a visit to the New Germany WWTW. Here we were in for several surprises. The lady overseeing the NG WWTW as one of four plants was hugely helpful, supportive and encouraging. Yes, things did to wrong at the works, today there was green dye coming through from one of the factories in New Germany. On Friday evening, some thick black oily substance played havoc with their process and had to be manually scooped out the works. At the end of the tour, which included a fortuitous meeting with the head ‘pollution chaser’ for the area and a promise of more networking with this group to follow, we arrived at the final outflow. A much anticipated event since our first reaction on the 8th November downstream at the ‘walkabout’ was to put the blame squarely on the WWTW. So what we saw was a pleasant surprise. There was no or a very negligible sedimentation load, certainly far less than other treatment plants that I’d visited in the past, although remembering it is a very fluctuating window that one is looking at. Open, direct communication served to build trust and as we described the condition of the water on that fateful day, its turbidity and viscosity, it was clear that this outflow was an unlikely source of that problem.
Other surprising thing we learnt that day was that the sludge is not treated at NG WWTW but rather goes on its way in another pipeline that runs along the Aller River and on to the Northern WWTW’s. I wonder if it is at all possible that that is the one we had to cross in 2012 when Penz had to be blindfolded and bribed with chocolates (and a gentle Preven) to make it across that void.
On one of our monthly Eco-champ meeting days we planned for our first community clean-up events taking place as part of our focus on waste management in December. It was heartening to have the ward councillor, community representatives and members from DWS education department join us for planning our community appraisal process and clean-up days.
Spending a second day in the same community that we visited for the ‘walkabout’ with Elsa Lee and viewing the river again brought new insights. After speaking to many individuals in the community and assessing the extent of the problem with waste dumping in the area we left with two primary thoughts in mind. The community received us openly and with good prospects for participation. By the end of the day, the problem that had appeared possible, now looked unsurmountable. Along the river banks and in a little tributary gully households had their dump. To make sense of where to start cleaning up this sodden, stinking mess was a huge challenge. The second challenge was psychological, could we really make a difference? The day ended on a cheerful note with plans in place for next week’s clean-ups.
With the focus on waste management who better to visit to cheer us up about the right way to go about waste disposal, than Marge Mitchell from Keep Hillcrest Beautiful. With a lovely welcome, a history of the project, a tour of the centre, an introduction to the recycling waste streams and the news that they too were healing a river, we left for the last part of the day’s journey to find out more about upcycling.
Two projects opened their arms to the Eco-champs showing them around and inspiring them with the creativity of the upcycled articles and projects that they were overseeing. We visited the Hillcrest Aids Project and Embocrafts, where we were delighted to meet some of the project conveners and teams for sewing, fabric printing and fashion upcycling.
All that’s left for the telling are the clean-up days. I am going to say the least although actually I need to say the most. We did have wonderful support to see us through what was the two most challenging days of the entire project. Briadene Youth Centre thank you for your support. DSW collected several loads of bags from a pretty inaccessible spot near the river. Thank you for coming. We asked the councillor why she didn’t come. One Tuesday, she was ‘getting there’ but didn’t quite get there in the end. On Wednesday she went to a rally quite far removed. The ward committee members? To be sure we had some community members pitch in and help, particularly on Tuesday. That kept us going. Some children with a trolley took a huge workload off our shoulders.
On Wednesday, in the little trickling tributary as we chopped away at alien’s and the full extent of just that local area started to reveal itself to us, we prayed. We gave the responsibility to do something about this back to God, set ourselves a target, and worked with heavy harts and tearful eyes and gagging throats to clear the little stream.
In some sort of inverted mythical fashion, it was a little green snake that came to say ‘thank you’ for your effort. I can see my lunch much better now and wow, I didn’t know that this little stream could flow so clearly, down on its way to the Aller…and on to the Geni.
Note: If you are interested in a formal project account of the Aller River Pilot Project, of the names of various people mentioned herein, I invite you to contact the project manager, Nick Swan on 082 807 7796 email@example.com. Nick has been the hero in the story of the Aller River Pilot Project over the past three months, playing a variety of roles required to ensure a successful project outcome. Nick’s right hand lady is the Projects Community Liaison Officer, Thozeka Ntlukwane, who has played a wonderfully supportive role for the Eco-Champs over the past three months, as well as setting up logistics and mobilising community support for the events.
You will find this Video of Phase One interesting too.
The Aller River Eco-Champs are: Nokuthula Mkhize – Team Leader, Nomfundo Nala, Silindile Bengu, Silindile Sithole, Thandeka Dube, Bukeka Nkqeto, Thembinkozi Gwala. There is a full profile for each Eco-Champ on the eThekwini Conservancies Forum Blogsite. A huge thank you to everyone who has played a role in this journey thus far, I took a decision not to mention all by name in this story, but you are non-the-less valued. Thank you too to everyone at DUCT for their support of this joint venture project.
Story compiled by: Pandora Long, DUCT Education, Training & Development Practioner, For: Aller River Pilot Project