What do miners, farmers, luxury lodge owners and fisherman in South Africa and Mozambique have in common?
They rely on a river that runs from Witbank and Sekhukhuneland in Mpumalanga, through the Kruger National Park and across the Mozambiquan border to Massingir, Chokwe and XaiXai, where it finds rest in the salty water of the Indian Ocean.
Yet this is a river under threat. “The Olifants River and its contributing waterways are critical for supporting life. Unchecked pollution, inappropriate land resource use, weak and poorly enforced policies and regulations and poor protection of habitats and biodiversity are degrading the Olifants at an alarming rate,”says Derick Du Toit, Assistant Director of the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD).
In recent years, there have been signs that the river is under strain. The Olifants actually dried up for the first time in 2005 and there have been repeated fish and crocodile kills. In 2014, AWARD began implementing the USAID-funded RESILIM O project to better understand the activities that affect the health of the Olifants River and the people, plants and animals that rely on it.
A recent study that forms part of the USAID: RESILIM O project highlighted some of the major water quality issues in the Olifants River Catchment. Samples taken at 28 points along the river show high salinity associated with mining activities, acid mine drainage and irrigated agricultural practices. There are also concerns around sulphate levels associated with mining and acid mine drainage, phosphate levels associated with wastewater treatment and agricultural practices (phosphate fertilizers) and pH levels associated with mining and acid mine drainage. “In fact, some parts of the river have the same pH as battery acid!”says Du Toit.
In the same way that users share the water of the Olifants, they also share the effects and impact of their activities on the quality and quantity of this life source.
Deteriorating water quality, especially, is driving change in the Olifants River Catchment “This severely compromises the resilience of the water resources and associated biodiversity and negatively affects the tens of thousands people who rely on the river in South Africa and Mozambique. And our work to date shows that climate change is another factor on the horizon that we need to start planning for. Disaster management becomes a key issue in planning for resilience. Without it we are going to be in trouble,”notes Du Toit.
Some of the major drivers of poor water quality in the Olifants River Catchment are dysfunctional waste water treatment works in municipalities and under regulated mining activities. It’s not just about unhealthy fish –sooner or later we all get to share the bad effects of polluted water.
Waste water treatment works are linked to water quality so we need to support operators and municipal managers to understand impacts of discharging raw sewage directly into rivers “because it has a very serious impact on our water quality in the catchment,”says Du Toit.
Other water quality issues in the Olifants River Catchment include concerns over the levels of metals in the water and worries about detection limits. The research, which was conducted by Dr Neil Griffin from the Unilever Centre for Environmental Water Quality at Rhodes University as part of USAID RESILIM O, suggests that some limits are above the acute and chronic effect values in the river for lead, mercury, nickel and cadmium. “Therefore, one would be exposed to poison before the test is sensitive enough to pick it up especially in the case with mercury,”says Du Toit. There is also very little data available on herbicides and pesticides.
“Much of our research is currently geared towards understanding what’s happening to the water in our Olifants and helping people to see the links between their activities and how it affects things down stream. This is part of a collaborative process of supporting thinking and acting in ways that help people and ecosystems cope with changing conditions,”says du Toit.
The Olifants River Catchment is roughly 55,000 square kilometres in size and is home to large rural communities, and economic activities that include mining, tourism and agriculture. As well as investigating water quality, AWARD’s innovative approach to understanding the Olifants River Catchment (ORC) systemically includes research into climate change, governance, land reform, protected area management and more.
Later in 2015, AWARD will be launching the Our Olifants campaign as a way to start building a sense of shared responsibility and identity in the catchment. “Farmers, miners, fishermen and lodge owners need to begin to see themselves as part of the same system and part of the solution to the water quality and other issues we are facing as one big catchment-family”says Du Toit.
AWARD is a non-profit organization specializing in participatory, research-based project implementation. Our work addresses issues of sustainability, inequity and poverty by building natural-resource management competence and supporting sustainable water-based livelihoods. We raise our own funds, work collaboratively with other organisations and strive to develop strong and rich professional networks.
About USAID: RESILIM-O
USAID: RESILIM-O focuses on the Olifants River Basin and the way in which people living in South Africa and Mozambique depend on the Olifants and its contributing waterways. It aims to improve water security and resource management in support of the healthy ecosystems that support livelihoods and resilient economic development in the catchment. The 5-year program, involving the South African and Mozambican portions of the Olifants catchment, is being implemented by the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD).