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Let the rivers run…

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Breede beauty: River flows in the upper catchment of the Breede River, an river that plays an important role in the agricultural and tourism economy of the Western Cape. Photo: Andrea Weiss / WWF-South Africa

Keeping river catchments clear of alien vegetation is vital in water-stressed South Africa, and there are some good examples of how to make this happen, with some real human benefits along the way, writes Andrea Weiss of WWF-South Africa.

Peter Rooi crouches down on the bank of the False River on a farm near Ceres and cups his hand together to scoop up the water. It’s a timeless act, but in this instance, Rooi’s claim to this clear trickle is personal.

A former seasonal fruit picker, Rooi now manages his own alien vegetation clearance team in the area – thanks to the help of farmer Steven Versveld who bought him his first chainsaw, and a project supported by Woolworths and WWF South Africa.

Where Rooi is crouching, 61 hectares of land next to the False River have been completely cleared and the results are evident. Not only is the water still flowing in the river, in spite of a three-year drought, but this tributary feeds into the Titus River which in turn feeds the great Breede River.

And upstream a mass of spiky grey leaves of palmiet is flourishing. The palmiet plant is highly desirable, with spongy roots that clean and release water during the dry season and help to control flooding in the winter.

Due to his work, Rooi can now also lay claim to another kind of flow – a healthier cash flow which has enabled him to put down his first deposit on a bakkie to expand his business.  And he is proud to be a job provider among his fellow residents in the informal settlement of Bella Vista near Ceres.

The bigger picture

Zoom out, and Rooi is the manager of one of eight alien clearance teams (or 104 people) working in the Upper Breed River catchment area in Ceres and Wolseley under the dynamic leadership of Ryno Pienaar. This project has as its objective to clear the tributaries, marshes and riparian areas of alien vegetation to improve water flow and enhance biodiversity.

Pienaar is employed by the Wolseley Water User Association as the alien clearing project manager for the area, and works in close cooperation with the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s LandCare programme. Woolworths funds Pienaar’s salary via WWF, while other contributors include local farmers, the Breede Gouritz Catchment Agency and the Western Cape treasury.

Within months of the project’s inception, the co-ordinating government departments and landowners in the area began talking enthusiastically about the “Ryno” model, one which exemplifies cooperation and partnerships. As a mark of its success, in the past year they have cleared 578 ha and generated 11 627 days of employment in the area.

Feroz Koor, Woolworths Holdings Group Head of Sustainability, says: “We rely on a steady and clean supply of water across our value chain especially in the farming of our fruit and vegetables. Consequently, it is critical for us to join forces with NGOs like WWF who are working with government, catchment agencies and landowners many of whom are our suppliers, to release more water into our rivers.

“Having the “Ryno” model has fast tracked everyone’s efforts and exceeded all expectations. The additional benefit of job creation has meant that this project has made a significant difference to this catchment area which we are delighted to hear is now being replicated elsewhere.”

Similar projects are being replicated elsewhere too – in Riviersonderend and George. In the the Outeniqua Water Source Area, a partnership with SAB Ltd, Sanlam, GIZ, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Nedbank has enabled the clearance of 880 hectares of alien vegetation over a period of four years and created 22 000 days of employment.

As Pienaar (or Ryno) explains, because seeds from alien vegetation float downstream, the more work you do upstream the better the results. So this work in the upper catchment of the Breede River benefits those who depend on the river all the way to Witsand at the sea.

And while the law requires landowners to keep their catchments clear of aliens, the best way to proceed is through cooperation, skills development and the kind of enthusiasm exemplified by the “Ryno” model, and the likes of Peter Rooi, for whom that handful of water symbolises a future that has changed for the better.

Andrea Weiss is the media manager for WWF-South Africa. Contact her at

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