“Water from the uMngeni catchment is the lifeblood that keeps the Durban economy going.” These were the words of eThekwini Municipality’s Head of Water and Sanitation Services, Neil Macleod, who is spearheading the exploration of a novel approach for improving both the quality and the quantity of water in the uMngeni through the restoration and maintenance of the catchments natural infrastructure – its ecosystems.
 
Durban literally sits at “the end of the pipe” of the whole catchment and currently spends a great deal on chemicals to make the water potable. “We have to change. We’ve tried traditional engineering solutions and it’s not working” said Macleod at a workshop held this week in the heart of the catchment at the Pietermaritzburg National Botanical Garden.
 
The workshop was convened by eThekwini Municipality to catalyse a new partnership initiative aimed at unlocking the potential of natural ecosystems in the water security equation. The workshop provided evidence of the critical role that ecological infrastructure can play in improving the overall state of the water resource in the catchment, while simultaneously providing job creation opportunities through the restoration and maintenance of the ecological infrastructure.
 
On 25 and 26 February 2013, 75 participants from 35 organisations representing the three spheres of government, civil society, universities and the private sector gathered at a workshop of critical importance for social and economic resilience in the areas of jurisdiction of eThekwini Municipality, uMgungundlovu Municipality and adjacent areas. “Our current strategies aimed at securing water of sufficient quantity and quality to address the vulnerability of our people and the economy need to be reviewed” said Macleod in his opening address. He added that Durban’s defence against poor water quality is rapidly eroding due to the state of the catchment. Information presented at the workshop highlighted the many challenges in the catchment resulting from inappropriate agricultural practises, industrial pollutants, faulty sewerage works and other practices that are leading to excessive mud/sediments and pollution in rivers as well as significant water losses to thirsty invasive plant/tree species.
 
Ecological (or natural) infrastructure refers to functioning ecosystems that produce and deliver services that are of value to society, such as fresh water, climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction. Natural infrastructure is the nature-based equivalent of built infrastructure. It includes healthy catchments, rivers, wetlands, and nodes and corridors of critical natural habitat, which together form a network of interconnected structural elements in the landscape. Because natural infrastructure is largely free, its value is often not captured in market transactions and we tend to under-invest in it.
 
 
Kristal Maze, Chief Director of Planning and Policy Advice at SANBI, identified some of the possible investments that may be required to restore and maintain the ecological infrastructure, emphasising that more detailed planning will be required to identify where the greatest return on investment is possible. By focusing on restoring and maintaining natural infrastructure in priority areas, identified through best available science, it is possible for the catchment to support multiple land uses and a range of economic activity without compromising the delivery of critical water-related services. Maze stressed this work in the uMngeni catchment would only be possible through an unprecedented partnership approach.
 
Debra Roberts, Deputy Head Environmental Planning and Climate Protection at eThekwiniMunicipality, reminded participants that such a partnership was indeed possible as evidenced in the case of New York where a similar approach has been piloted. Roberts also stressed that the envisaged uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership would not replace or duplicate existing institutions such as the catchment management forums, but rather focus on the contribution that ecological infrastructure can make to the overall catchment management strategy.
 
While engineering solutions have provided us with great improvements in development and human well-being, they alone are unlikely to help us deal with our water security challenges as well as the uncertainly posed by climate change. Healthy intact ecosystems – dependent on our rich biodiversity – also play an important role. They provide society with food, water, grazing and biomass – an important source of energy and building material. Ecosystems such as wetlands, grassy mountain catchments and forests prevent siltation and flooding downstream and help reduce the impacts of extreme weather events.
 
The workshop was convened by eThekwini Municipality in partnership with the South African National Biodiversity Institute. Key stakeholders will be invited to join the partnership which is due to be launched mid-year.
 
Further comments can be obtained from:
Neil Macleod – Head of Water and Sanitation, eThekwini Municipality (Kim.Brackenridge@durban.gov.za)
Debra Roberts –Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department, eThekwini Municipality (Debra.Roberts@durban.gov.za)
Kristal Maze – Chief Director: Biodiversity Planning and Policy Advice, South African National Biodiversity Institute (k.maze@sanbi.org.za)
 
Issued by the eThekwini Municipality’s Communications Unit. For more information contact Municipal Spokesperson, Thabo Mofokeng on 031 311 4820 or 0827317456 or e-mail thabo1.mofokeng@durban.gov.za
 
Additional information on ecological infrastructure
 
What role can natural infrastructure play in the delivery of water and sanitation services?
 
The following are some of the major benefits that will accrue from restored and well managed natural infrastructure in the uMngeni catchment:
 
• Improved water quality, thereby decreasing treatment costs, and decreasing the risk of water borne diseases and related health and other social costs. Direct abstraction for household use is prevalent in this catchment, making this benefit all the more relevant.
• Flood attenuation, reducing risk of damage to water reticulation and treatment infrastructure (2011 flood damage in KZN ≥ R700 million).
• Increased winter baseflow, contributing to assurance of water supply and enhancing ability of impoundments (e.g. dams) to provide ecological releases, leading to improved dilution capacity and water quality during the dry season.
• Reduced sediment loads in both the river channel and impoundments, helping to maintain water quality, increase the economic lifespan of reticulation infrastructure and maintain storage capacity.
Where ecological/natural infrastructure is restored, maintained and managed to deliver the above services, a suite of additional benefits will be realised, such as improved agricultural productivity, improved landscape integrity securing cultural benefits, reduced flood damage to human settlements, and increased adaptive capacity to climate change impacts, all of which increase the return on investment. In addition, there is the opportunity for significant job creation associated with the restoration, maintenance and management of natural infrastructure, not limited to short-term work opportunities.
 
What do we know about the condition of natural infrastructure in the greater uMngeni catchment?
 
Just more than 36% of the uMngeni catchment has lost its ability to deliver the above services as a result of conversion of natural habitat to other land uses. In addition to this outright loss of natural habitat in 36% of the catchment, degradation of natural habitat in the balance of the catchment has resulted in significantly reduced potential to deliver services. This situation highlights the need to pursue investments in the restoration and sustainable management of natural infrastructure as an effective additional strategy towards reconciling supply and demand in this system.