Working for Water


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Nowhere in South Africa have the principles of sustainability been more practically applied than in the government-initiated Working for Water programme (“WfW”).
WfW is based on the immense problem faced in South Africa with invasive alien plant species, which are thought to cover about 8% of the area of the country. They have a large detrimental effect on biodiversity and cause substantial losses to the water flowing out of effected drainage basins.

These invading alien plants are causing us to lose some 7% of the annual water flow in South Africa’s rivers each year – about 3 300 million cubic metres of water. (This excludes their severe impact upon ground water reserves.) We were to do nothing to redress the situation, then the plants would continue to invade at a rate of about 5% per year, doubling their impact every 15 years! (Minister Kader Asmal, 1998)

It is this effect on the country’s very limited water resource, that made the government commit to this being one of their largest public works programmes, having initiated 240 projects and employed 42,000 people.

The underlying principles of the WfW programme are the fundamental tenets of the definition of sustainable development used during the Garden Route Campaign. These are the inter-linking requirements of environmental protection, economic wealth creation and social upliftment. It is for this reason that my experience in the Campaign has been most valuable in my current involvement with the local WfW project and the Plettenberg Bay Water Conservation Campaign.

Environmental protection lies at the heart of WfW. By means of intensive eradication of a wide variety of invasive alien plants, the threat posed to the very high biodiversity of the country, especially in areas such as the Garden Route, is diminished. Further, of course, the water that would be consumed by the alien plants is saved and may be used for the growing needs of our population as well as a necessary reserve for the sustained functioning of our river ecosystems. The second pillar of WfW has been job creation. The task of cutting down and removing the alien trees and shrubs has been organised in such a way that it is labour intensive and that it is done by the destitute. As such, it has become a lifeline for many communities gripped by long-term unemployment and ensuing poverty. Thirdly, WfW makes concerted efforts at social development. It provides training programmes to those employed to cut trees, so that once the project ends they will have better employment chances. It also provides primary health care and education facilities to the communities involved.

It is clear that WfW represents a fundamentally important and innovative approach to public spending, with a wide variety of positive spin-offs. However, there have been a number of problems, related to mismanagement and social problems in the workers’ camps. It cannot be expected that a project of this size and ground breaking nature could have proceeded without hitches! Many of these problems also relate to the reasons that my experience gained with the Campaign has been of great importance for successful public relations work for WfW. It has also contributed to an appreciation of what is lacking in current WfW activities. This includes, significantly, an effective value-adding activity for the workers once the alien plants have been cut, such as fire wood selling, charcoal production, light furniture making. Such suggestions are being forwarded to the programme’s leader on an ongoing basis.

Jenny Lawrence

Children from local schools supporting Working for Water

Working for Water staff clearing alien vegetation

Art by a scholar supporting Working for Water

A Working for Water poster supplied to schools



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