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Ecological Infrastructure

What is Ecological Infrastructure?

Ecological infrastructure refers to functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people, such as fresh water, climate regulation, soil formation and disaster risk reduction. It is the nature based equivalent of built or hard infrastructure, and is just as important for providing services and underpinning socio-economic development. Ecological infrastructure includes, for instance, healthy mountain catchments, rivers, wetlands, coastal dunes, and nodes and corridors of natural habitat, which together form a network of interconnected structural elements in the landscape. For more information on ecological infrastructure and its associated benefits, please refer to the fact sheet.

uMngeni Ecological Infrastucture Parternship (UEIP)

The uMngeni River in KwaZulu-Natal is about 225 km long, starting at the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains and entering the sea just north of Durban. The catchment area feeding this river covers more than 4250 km2 and occupies less than 5% of the surface area of KwaZulu-Natal, even though it supplies water to approximately 42% of the population of the province. The uMngeni catchment is located within the Southern Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area and supplies water to two major economic centres of KwaZulu-Natal (Durban and Pietermaritzburg). The growing population and increase in economic development in the province has led to greater demand for water, which has resulted in a number of water security challenges in the catchment. Despite investment in built infrastructure to address water service delivery, the catchment is no longer able to provide sufficient water of adequate quality to the people.

To respond to this, in 2013 a number of organisations led by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, the KwaZulu-Natal office of the Department of Water and Sanitation and Umgeni Water formed a catchment-wide partnership, the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP). The partnership currently comprises 17 member organisations from national, provincial and local government departments, business and academic institutions as well as civil society. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), as a co-founder of the UEIP, has been the centre of coordination for the partnership since its inception. In its coordination role SANBI provides strategic, management and administrative support and capacity to the UEIP; keeping internal and external stakeholders up-to-date with relevant issues and activities of the partnership.

The primary focus of the UEIP is to explore the role that ecological infrastructure (EI) can play in supplementing and/or substituting for built infrastructure to improve water security in the catchment. Ecological infrastructure is defined as naturally functioning ecosystems that produce or deliver valuable services to people e.g. wetlands and flood plains, rivers and their riparian zones, mountain ranges, forests, rangelands, grasslands etc. The idea is to demonstrate the optimal benefits and complementarities of built and ecological infrastructure.

The UEIP is guided by the following strategic objectives:

  • Strategic investment in ecological infrastructure contributing to enhanced water security in the uMngeni catchment
  • Improved governance that is contributing to slowing the rate of degradation of ecological infrastructure
  • Strengthened institutional capacity for the rehabilitation, maintenance and protection of ecological infrastructure
  • An enabling policy environment for investment in the rehabilitation and management of ecological infrastructure in the catchment
  • An improved knowledge base on ecological infrastructure that informs policy and practice
  • Effective collaboration, coordination and co-learning that enables the UEIP to consolidate, grow and demonstrate its value

The UEIP is currently supported by the Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security (EI4WS) Project, which is a five-year Global Environmental Facility (GEF) funded project implemented in two critical South African catchments, the Greater uMngeni in KwaZulu-Natal and Berg-Breede in the Western Cape. The Greater uMngeni catchment is made up of the uMngeni catchments and adjacent catchments; Upper Mooi, Mkhomazi, Ilovu and Umlazi; which supplement its water supply through existing and planned inter-basin transfers. The EI4WS project aims to integrate biodiversity and ecosystem services into planning, finance and development in the water sector to improve water security. The project is implemented in collaboration with various sub-executing partners including Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS), Breede-Gouritz Catchment Management Agency (BGCMA), Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), Umgeni Water, National Business Initiative (NBI), Duzi-Umngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), and the Water Research Commission (WRC) under the guidance of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA) and the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and the Environment (DFFE).

This 5 year project commenced in 2018 and is organised into three interdependent components:

  1. An enabling environment strengthened to allow biodiversity and ecosystem services to contribute to improved water security;
  2. Demonstration of proposed approaches in the Berg-Breede and Greater uMngeni River catchments; and
  3. Improving the integration of biodiversity and ecosystem services into the water value chain through social learning, credible evidence and knowledge management.

Among the key outcomes of the project is enhanced organizational capacity and investment in ecological infrastructure for improved water resource management through coordinating efforts of multiple actors to control invasive alien plants, rehabilitate riparian and wetland ecosystems and related ecological infrastructure activities in the Greater uMngeni catchment. Effective coordination efforts can be achieved by supporting the continued functioning of the UEIP as a catchment-wide multi-sectoral partnership and leveraging on the projects and programmes of catchment stakeholders.

Proof of Concept

Amanzi Ethu Nobuntu (AEN)

Amanzi Ethu Nobuntu (AEN) programme is a multi-partner blended finance community-public-private-partnership that was initiated in 2021 under the auspice of the UEIP as part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (through the Department of Science and Innovation the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust). AEN was piloted as a 3-month project for proof of concept of a blended-finance model in the Greater uMngeni with 300 young people doing work for the environmental common good and learning for the future.

Various partner organisations across the catchment, from source to sea worked with young people to clean rivers, clear alien invasive plants and facilitate education and awareness to bring change to their local communities. In addition, the youth were trained to use citizen science tools to gather biomonitoring data and determine the state of their local rivers and streams. The blended finance model is such that partner organisations involved co-funded the Presidential Economic Stimulus Programme with ±10% of their own funds to implement activities related to management of ecological infrastructure. The programme is recognised for its innovation and potential for replication as a solution for managing ecological infrastructure, and creation jobs for the youth. At the end of 2021, the project was awarded with a second phase for a period of seven months (December 2021 to June 2022). This second phase enabled Amanzi Ethu Nobuntu to grow from a project to a programme involving 20 partner organisations and providing ±600 job opportunities for unemployed youth across the Greater uMngeni catchment and beyond.

Demonstration projects

The three projects of the UEIP were conceptualised at the inception of the partnership and led by local government partners with implementation supported by various partners. The intention was for the project to provide “proof of concept” on how the partnership model of coordinating efforts across stakeholders can yield positive results for the environment and communities.

Save Midmar Project

This was identified as one of the three UEIP demonstration projects, initially led by the uMgungundlovu District Municipality (UMDM) with the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA) coordinating activities to restore the ecological infrastructure within key areas around the Midmar Dam. Midmar Dam supplies water to most of the population in the catchment, including the major cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban. It is also known for hosting the most popular recreational event in the region, the Midmar Mile. The quality of water in the dam has declined significantly due to contamination from sewerage and industrial waste, as well as nutrient inputs from agricultural activities upstream of the dam. The project focuses on repairing and re-constructing wastewater infrastructure, wetland rehabilitation, water quality monitoring through citizen science, as well as community education and outreach.

This project has been funded by various UEIP partners, including UMDM, Umgeni Water, Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE) and SANBI. SANBI, through funding from the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) under the Biodiversity and Land-Use (BLU) Project, has facilitated rehabilitation and restoration of the Mthinzima Wetland upstream of Midmar Dam. This work was undertaken between 2020 and 2022 and built on the work initiated by DFFE’s Working for Wetlands and involved altering the hydrology of the system such that flows through the wetland are re-distributed across the surface of the wetland rather than being confined to the channel. This has been achieved by incorporating site specific interventions such as earthworks to divert a proportion of the base flows out of the existing channel and manages flows re-entering the channel from the adjacent areas. This is also intended to improve re-instate wetland habitat and wetland function.

SANBI, under the GEF funded Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security (EI4WS) Project ,is employing 13 Enviro-Champs as part of the Amanzi Ethu Nobuntu programme, to conduct door to door education, fix domestic water leaks, monitor and report sewage spillages, conduct biomonitoring and wetland monitoring using citizen science tools. The Enviro-Champs have all completed Level 2 Environment Practices Training conducted by WESSA.

Baynespruit Rehabilitation Project

This is the second demonstration project of the UEIP, led by the Msunduzi Local Municipality as one of the partners. It focuses on rehabilitating the Baynespruit River, a tributary of the Msunduzi River. The Msunduzi River is the main tributary of uMngeni River running through the city of Pietermaritzburg and receiving water from the Baynespruit River. The water quality of the Baynespruit River is poor due to pollution from illegal industrial waste discharge, solid waste, as well as poor stormwater and sanitation infrastructure.

Through funding from the GEF under the BLU Project, SANBI has partnered with DUCT to support the work being undertaken on the Baynespruit River. The work is focused in the Northdale to Sobantu region and involves alien invasive plant removal, land rehabilitation, as well as citizen science monitoring and river clean-ups by schools in the area The alien clearing portion aims to enhance river health, water quality and to improve the ecological functioning and the quality of life for residents. Ultimately, farmers should be able to irrigate their crops from water from the river. Monitoring and evaluating the impacts of these interventions is on-going.

Palmiet Rehabilitation Project

The Palmiet Rehabilitation Project is led by eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality with assistance from researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The project aims to address the deterioration of the water quality and quantity in the Palmiet River. The focus of the project is on improved governance through developing a good relationship with catchment stakeholders and communities to understand the socio-economic and political dynamics, particularly in the informal settlements around the Palmiet River. Challenges on this part of the catchment include solid waste management in the informal settlements, sewer leaks and illegal industrial effluent discharge.

The following are key project milestones since its implementation:

  • Shared governance platform of the Palmiet Catchment Rehabilitation Project with local community from Quarry Road informal settlement through quarterly Committee Of Inspection meetings
  • Improvement in working relations between municipality and the community
  • The appointment of the Service Provider (GroundTruth) to implement the Integrated Infrastructure Programme of South Africa (IIPSA) project as part of the Western Aqueduct Programme
  • Initially, a group of 10 Enviro Champs were working on environmental education initiatives with the community and conducting citizen science biomonitoring
  • In the second phase of the project, funding from SANBI’s EI4WS Project is supporting the employment of 5 enviro-champs and 5 graduates
  • There has been enhanced service delivery in the catchment through working closely with Durban Solid Waste, Durban Green Corridor and Iqhaza Lethu program from eThekwini Human Settlements in piloting waste management plan for Quarry Road West Informal Settlement

Community-Based Work

KwaNovuka Community

The community of KwaNovuka is located in the Impendle Municipal area near the town of Dargle. Within this area is the Impendle Vlei which is the source of the uMngeni River that supplies water to millions of people that live in this catchment. Surrounding the wetland area are commercial farms and communal areas where community members engage in various agricultural activities including stock farming. A few local organisations have been active in working with the commercial farmers to partake in land management activities such as the removal of invasive alien vegetation and grassland rehabilitation. However, there has been limited engagement with the community of KwaNovuka to understand their needs as well as how they would like to participate in the protection of this important resource.

Since 2020, SANBI has been engaging the KwaNovuka community with a view to understand how the community interacts with the landscape , what their challenges are, what their priorities are and, what role the Impendle Vlei and surrounding grasslands play in their lives (socially, economically, spiritually). Through this iterative process, the need was identified for the youth to be empowered to look after their own environment, learn from the elders (thereby passing down indigenous knowledge) and develop a plan for looking after the landscape. Under the EI4WS Project and Amanzi Ethu Nobuntu programme, a team of 10 Enviro-Champs have been trained on various aspects including using citizen science tools for biomonitoring and wetland monitoring. They are using the knowledge they are gaining through the project to conduct education and awareness with the community, cattle counting and establishing community gardens.