Working together to achieve sustainable water for all

by Dr Jim Taylor

Water is the life-blood of every nation. When the New York City fore-fathers established the city they ensured, early on in the planning process, that the Catskills Mountain range, New York’s very own water factory, was secured. This means that today New York probably has the cleanest water supply of any large city in the world! Not only is the water supply sufficient in quantity but the quality of the water means that little money is spent on cleaning the water for human use.

South Africa’s largest water factory is the uKhahlamba (Drakensberg) Mountain Range which provides an ideal backbone, or watershed, for Lesotho, South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Seventy per cent of all South Africans get their water from the Orange-Senqu river basin which has its headwaters in this remarkably productive watershed. Inter-basin transfers, such as the Tugela-Vaal and the Orange-Senqu/ Johannesburg transfer scheme all rely on the clean water that is ‘manufactured’ in the Drakensberg and Maluti mountain range on the border between Lesotho and South Africa.

Water governance in South Africa

South Africa is a water-stressed country, and such is the magnitude of water risks that the government has appointed a dedicated Ministry and Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) to address water and sanitation issues. It is also apparent that government cannot manage water quality and quantity issues alone. Partnerships with civil society organisations, therefore, form a key part of South Africa’s water management strategy.

Massive water awareness campaigns such as 20/20 vision and Baswa le Meetse have also been conducted to create much needed understanding of how scarce and vulnerable our water supply really is. These campaigns include massive street processions where cities like Boksburg close the streets so that thousands of people can demonstrate their commitment to a cleaner, water-wise future. Such campaigns have done a great deal to raise awareness, but on their own cannot enable the much needed change practices that will bring about greater care of our water resources.

It is thus becoming clear that awareness raising campaigns can only play a small part in solving our water issues. To enable South African Society, as a whole, to manage water resources more wisely, well-informed management is crucial.

To achieve this, more creative and engaging human capacity development programmes are vital. For substantial change in the way in which people use, and learn not to abuse water supplies, we need a framework, or scaffolding, that provides a coherent pathway from current, unsustainable practices to more sustainable and wise ways of managing and using our water resources. In essence, these are the goals that the WESSA human capacity development programmes for wise water management are seeking to achieve.

The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) – working with WESSA to secure sustainable water practices

Through a creative partnership DWS is currently supporting WESSA to manage a country-wide project that involves schools and school communities across South Africa. This partnership, the DWS/WESSA Eco-Schools Water Project, is demonstrating how civil society partnerships can support DWS to achieve its mission and vision. In just over four months of concerted activity, 50 water-wise projects have been established in schools and communities across South Africa (See Geographical Distribution Map below). Such projects are going beyond awareness-raising and many schools are already reporting how they are saving thousands of litres of water every month.

WESSA: Supporting adult based accredited training in specifically targeted priority areas

Supporting schools to undertake meaningful water projects is just one level of society engagement. Adult-based training and service delivery expertise is also imperative in achieving a nation that is able to manage its water resources well. In this regard WESSA, an accredited training service provider, is empowering local municipalities and even district municipalities in integrated water resource management. Of particular significance here is the range of courses on environmental practices which support municipalities, who are the legal guardians of our water resources, to fulfil their mandated obligations.

Lemson Betha, the manager of the Umngeni catchment-based capacity building programme, points out how WESSA is supporting the uMsunduzi local municipality and the Umgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) to meet their Integrated Development Plan (IDP) obligations and commitments: “Working closely with senior staff of uMsunduzi, such as Thami Vilakazi (Msunduzi Education and Training Development Practitioner), Nosipho Moyo (UMDM Control Environmental Officer) and Mandisa Khomo (UMDM Chief Planner) we are able to provide relevant, work-place-based training programmes that support people to understand and meet their water conservation targets.”

To change behaviour one needs to start with the very behavioural practices people are engaging in. Training courses do this by commencing with the practices that are problematic at a municipal level and work from there to reduce the impacts. One reason that awareness-raising has such limited potential is that it is essentially a ‘centre-to-periphery’ or ‘top-down’ process, from those who know to those they are seeking to inform. Such one-way transfers of information cannot provide adequate, active engagement in the water-use issues or water-use practices.

It is here that WESSA’s environment practices courses really do make a difference. Early on in the course participants document their water resource use challenges and, working with well- trained tutors, develop practical methods to change the way water is managed. Course participants then implement change projects at their workplaces. These change projects provide support for changing practices in the use and management of water. The change project then becomes the measure of how water is conserved and used more wisely. The change projects are also part of the methodology through which the course outcomes are evaluated.

A ‘Portfolio of Evidence’ (POE) is developed and submitted to WESSA and the National Qualifications framework (NQF) to secure the qualification for the successful local government officials.

In just six months, from January to June 2014, more than 800 local government officials, including supervisors, managers and workers, have successfully completed environment practices training through WESSA’s own accredited training department, SustainEd.

Going beyond awareness with citizen science practices

“Today we all became important scientists, working with WESSA to explore our streams through the Stream Assessment Scoring System” (Pam Tshwete, Deputy Minister, DWAS, 1 July 2014)

One of the most effective ways of going beyond awareness-raising is to use citizen science to mobilise people to find out about water issues and to take action to solve them. Pierre Spierer, Vice- Rector for Research of the University of Geneva, describes citizen science as ‘… a grass-roots movement which challenges the assumption that only professionals can do science. Given the right tools and incentives, and some online training, millions of enthusiastic volunteers can make a real difference, contributing to significant scientific discoveries’.

On 1 July, 50 school teachers and over 100 pupils joined Pam Tshwete, her senior staff and other WESSA members to explore and document the water quality of the Modderfontein stream which flows through Johannesburg close to OR Tambo International Airport. Using a simple identification sheet, developed by GroundTruth and WESSA, participants were able to identify the insects that live in the stream.

These insects have a story to tell and, because some of them are sensitive to pollution, the miniSASS research methodology helps participants to work out a river health index for the stream. Because the Modderfontein stream is part of the main drainage system of the eKurhuleni industrial area, the river health index only scored 4.25 which means the stream quality is very poor (this indicates that the natural stream has been transformed by human activities).

Once the test had been completed the results were loaded onto the miniSASS Google Earth platform at The score is represented on Google Earth as a ‘purple crab’ which now appears on the map and the Deputy Minister named the site the ‘Tshwete science’ biomonitoring site! This now means that anyone can see the stream quality, and eKurhuleni, who are responsible for water resources in this municipality, have made a commitment to improve the water quality. This is not an easy task in an industrial area such as this.

The miniSASS project won the Water Research Commission’s (WRC) community empowerment award for 2013! In a further development the British High Commission have invested in a project to build a network of skilled miniSASS trainers across South Africa and into the SADC region.

The WESSA Water Programme: Vision and Overview

The vision of the WESSA Water Programme is to work together in using South Africa’s water resources wisely, thus securing safe, adequate and fair water supply to realise our current and future aspirations towards a common good and healthy life support systems.

The Water Programme aims to improve the quality, availability and distribution of water resources in order to enhance the goods and services that they provide. With a focus on water issues in catchment areas, river and estuarine systems, human settlements and SADC transboundary areas, WESSA works with government departments, local and traditional authorities, urban and rural communities and representatives of SADC countries to strengthen water governance and management; improve stewardship; and make social, ecological and economic contributions.

Human Capacity Development in the Umngeni Catchment – An urgent national priority

The Umngeni River currently provides fresh water for over 5 million people who live and work in the cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

Although this area is South Africa’s second most important economic region, its water resources are being overexploited and polluted at an alarming rate.

Although awareness about the predicament is high, little is being done to overturn the unsustainable utilisation or to prevent the pollution, which includes solid waste, nutrient loading and total coli-form, from entering the river. Since many organisations and institutions are responsible for water management in the Umngeni Catchment, WESSA,withthesupportofWWF,undertook a research process to establish just who the priority groups were that should undergo capacity building.

This study, which included stakeholder consultation through a socio-ecological

power-mapping process, clarified who the main influencing organisations in the catchment really are. The research then established which organisations had high influence, but low understanding of sustainable water-use practices, so that these groups could participate in a coherent and well organised learning programme.

This research work has now been taken further and has been used to plan a capacity building programme within the Umngeni Catchment through which Councillors, Planners, Local and District Municipal staff and other members of the public are involved. All participants in this training process are learning about, and beginning to undertake, wise water management practices. Our hope is that these efforts will not be too little, too late.


Many people and organisations are contributing to human capacity development to ensure that the quality, quantity and equitable access to water becomes a reality in South Africa. In particular WESSA would like to acknowledge support from the Department of Water and Sanitation, the Water Research Commission, GroundTruth, WWF (Maas Maasen), The British High Commission, SANBI and USAID.

Source: The Sustainable Water Resource Handbook Volume 5


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