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  • Bronwyn Egan


‘Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.’ W.H. Auden

We need a new watersong, a new love story - one which pulls equally at our discordant heartstrings. One which can inspire us all to work together, regardless of our different perspectives. We have been shown enough signs of late to feel the fragility of life to want to find a pathway we can follow from ‘feeling’ into ‘fixing’. Our immense and almost mystical ability to work together, has created a world in which we can see into space as well as into the wiring of our own brains. With the extraordinary instruments we have built, we can unpick the stars to understand the beginnings of time, and can repair, not just our bodies, but also our brains. In our cleverness, however, we have created a planet which is overburdened with the debris of our childlike wish to have it all and play until the lights go out.

There is still time, however, to turn our formidable intelligence towards tackling a cooperative clean-up for our collective home. Science has given us the plan and the tools, and now we need to live the actions by working together rather than battening down the hatches towards those we observe as ‘the other’. This may have worked in the past, when we were not constrained by space or by the breakdown of the very systems that kept us alive. When the land was wide open and still full of promise, we could leave when we did not agree on the best way to feed a town, shelter a community or teach our children how to love. When our goals were no longer in the common interest, we could literally follow our dreams to another landscape.

Now, there is nowhere left to run, except into fantasies of a flight to Mars, or into a bubble-wrapped biosphere. Our hunter-gatherer instinct to go looking for greener pastures served us well in the past, but moving to Mars is simply not a viable option for the vast majority of us. Despite the global awareness that wars and pandemics, droughts, floods and fires flying through the undergrowth are symptoms of the unhealthy environment we created, force and fear have done little to change our habits. Perhaps it would be better to follow a vision, than to be prodded from behind by dread.

Visions arise from various ideals, but one thing they have in common is their beauty. Water sparkles and glitters. It can be as blue as the hope in the sky and as dark as the sea’s majestic depths. We use it to celebrate birth and to cleanse us after death. We raft it and sail it and swim in it and admire it. And each day, without fail, whether we remember or not, we are only alive because a cloud-burst released it, a river collected it, a wetland restored it and the sunlight distilled it. A vision that is as beautiful as it is vital, water is the story of life and worth working towards saving.

Our Upper Letaba Catchment is fed from the mist on the mountains around the Woodbush area of Magoebaskloof. The natural vegetation consists of Woodbush Granite Grassland and Northern Mistbelt Forest, and when it is in a good state, the forest functions as a mist catcher and the grassland works as a sponge. Together they capture, store, clean and release the water on which we and thousands downstream of us depend for drinking, cleaning, farming and industry.

This system relies on a myriad of species, from microbes to monkeys and all the in-between links in their food-chains, to function. Destroying the buffers of vegetation around rivers causes as many challenges for the sustainability of the water supply, as damming and draining all the water from a tributary, or poisoning a side stream with pesticides. Figuring out how we can feed from this blue-green resource in a manner that is sustainable, is a vision worth pursuing. In fact, it is not just a ‘nice to do’, but a necessity, both for our own livelihoods and for those of our down-stream neighbours. It is work that will take the whole community, with all our fields of expertise.

Government has decreed our catchment a Strategic Water Use Area. This grand title conveys the idea that ‘Someone Official’ will make sure it continues to function and fix it if it gets broken. In reality this will probably not happen. Government is a concept which works well in theory but in practice is confounded by the problem that those put in charge of managing and maintaining are not directly affected by the outcome. We who live and work in this catchment, and who love the beauty that rises from the connection between mountain and forest; stream and cautious creature, are the ones who are best placed to curate its use.

Whether we farm the land, research its linkages, teach its children, show its treasures to tourists or build its economic vitality, we all need to think about how our actions will influence our water. We need to talk and listen to each other in safe places where our energy is not spent defending our viewpoints, but rather, in solving our challenges. We have little time and less money, but we do have one great strength - we know how to love. And when we have common goals pulling us together, we excel at actions for the greater good.

Water, with its mystique and its magic, exerts a pull on our hearts that is born of something deeper than mere beauty. Water allows us to live, therefore we need to allow it to run, unfettered by silt and free of pollution, through mountain grasslands and forest gullies in a glittering network, linking each to the other.

Mountain Water for All - How do we achieve this together?

  • We can all assist in mapping our untransformed pieces of veld

  • Let’s keep river buffers of natural vegetation free of alien infestation

  • It is possible to link indigenous patches of vegetation with corridors of semi-transformed or restored vegetation

  • You can join the stewardship programme to create nature reserves in areas still consisting of indigenous forests and grasslands

  • Who is able to assist with restoration programmes through funding, through dedicating land or through hard labour?

  • How about joining research programmes that have some answers to water-use questions

  • Let’s comply with water use legislation and assist in strengthening local water-use policy

  • Try to get informed by reading about local research for solutions and actions

  • Share your ideas, challenges and solutions so we can all make a difference!

Conversations with Changemakers - an update on our catchment community meeting

On the 23rd July an eclectic mix of people met. We were farmers, scientists, environmentalists, writers, adventurers, business owners, tourism consultants and tourists, all with one concern: WATER, and how to manage it. An overall project to map the Upper Letaba Catchment using a GIS system to create an integrated overview of water and its associated environmental support system was presented. The importance of nurturing grasslands and forests for water health was put across. Various Agricultural Accreditation Systems and environmental sustainability were important topics, as well as Experiential Tourism and the benefits of intact natural systems. Biodiversity and its role in the Upper Letaba Catchment took centre-stage in the presentations and discussions with suggestions, challenges and potential solutions, a highlight of the evening. When combined with the emails that flew around afterwards, they gave an indication of how to move towards a more water secure environment.

There was a call to action for clearing alien trees along river courses, restoring old lands and unneeded plantations as well as creating natural barriers between plantations or orchards and adjacent rivers to stop run-off. Burning questions included how to invent a fence to keep people out but allow wildlife through, how to arrest the planting of timber through water courses and solutions to prevent poaching. Other points were informative and revolved around the research occurring in the area, particularly that of projects investigating biodiversity and water quality / quantity. Practical assistance was also offered, such as the supply of yellow-wood seeds for restoration of forest areas and publishing environmental information in local media. Strengthening public/private partnerships was seen as an important step, as was involving all who live and work in the area.

Future steps involve visiting untransformed areas of grassland and forest in order to map these and determine possible linking corridors, as well as holding further gatherings to address particular topics and sharing information around water and its management so that we can all contribute as a community to safeguarding our essential water resources.

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