Neels Blom Writer at large
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town. Foundations, philanthropists and South African corporations have already committed close to R53m to the new water fund. Picture: WIKIMEDIA
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, Cape Town. Foundations, philanthropists and South African corporations have already committed close to R53m to the new water fund. Picture: WIKIMEDIA

Global conservation organisation The Nature Conservancy has won support from SA businesses for its campaign to clear alien vegetation in the Western Cape.

The organisation says its research shows that clearing “non-native trees” unlocks two months of extra water a year for Cape Town at a 10th of the cost of other plans to beat drought.

Foundations, philanthropists and SA corporations have already committed close to R53m to the new water fund. It also has the backing of SA’s provincial and national authorities.

Earlier in 2018, at the height of the Cape’s water crisis, dam levels had fallen to less than 20% and Cape Town was forced to prepare for “Day Zero”, the day when piped municipal supply would fail. This scenario was avoided due to adherence to short-term water-use restrictions, a cut in irrigation water to agriculture and water pumped in from a neighbouring scheme.

However, the research entity Anchor Environmental Services says the threat of Day Zero remains in light of Cape Town’s rapid population growth (about 2.6% a year) while water supply has “flatlined”.

Anchor says climate models show lower rainfall accompanied by higher temperatures in the future, increasing the risk of water shortages. Water demand is predicted to outstrip supply in the greater Cape Town area by 2021. Dams supplying the city are 75% full after the first season of adequate rainfall following three years of drought.

Andrea Erickson, MD for water funds at The Nature Conservancy, says the scale of the challenges and the rate at which they are growing requires innovation and evolution. “Investing in nature-based solutions to water scarcity can be cost-effective and efficient and often produces additional benefits compared to conventional built, grey infrastructure.”

The Nature Conservancy says Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Caterpillar Foundation and Levi Strauss & Co are among the first businesses in SA to support the water fund.

Clearing alien vegetation from the catchment area to improve run-off volumes has been met with mixed success in the Western Cape and across the country. An assessment by the SA National Biodiversity Institute found that implementation was often poorly aligned with plans and the quality of many treatments was inadequate.

Water politics expert Prof Anthony Turton said removing  invasive species of vegetation was a positive move, but it was a fraction of the complex puzzle strategic planners needed to understand.

Turton said by taking a water-scarcity approach, the focus was only on the cost per unit of water in what he called paradigm of scarcity. In this paradigm, the discourse was about managing water as a finite stock with money regarded as a cost to be avoided.

Turton advocated instead for what he called a paradigm of abundance in which the focus would be on investor confidence, as was being applied in Melbourne, Australia, where the climatic and demographic conditions were similar to Cape Town’s.

“[In Melbourne] the plan is to create a base flow off desalination and this has created enough surplus water for the dams to be kept more than 60% full. This allows for the rehabilitation of aquatic ecosystems, which is what The Nature Conservancy is trying to achieve by eliminating aliens. But it also plays a major role in investor confidence.

“Therefore, Melbourne has capital flowing in, whereas the Western Cape has capital flowing out,” said Turton.

blomn@businesslive.co.za