Water troops find 'extinct' dragonfly

The harlequin sprite, a dragonfly long thought to be extinct throughout its home areas in KwaZulu-Natal, was rediscovered recently when a Working for Water team was clearing the Pilgrim’s Rest area in Mpuma-langa of invasive alien plant species.

The team’s find and other discoveries in freshwater biology will be presented at the programme’s first symposium on issues such as the effects of alien invasive species on water resources, biodiversity and conservation management. The conference will be held at Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens in Cape Town from August 19 to 21.

The event will be hosted by the Working for Water research teams, which, since 1999, have studied issues ranging from operations management to the use of insects in the biological control of invasive alien plants and the cost benefits of ridding South Africa of alien plants that consume more water than indigenous species.

Apart from bringing together researchers from many disciplines, a key aim of the symposium is to develop a database on its research findings that would be accessible to everyone.

The research will also be used to develop teaching material for grade four and grade eight pupils in conjunction with Department of Education officials. “We are pushing quite hard as a programme to further the science so that Joe Public can understand it,” says the project’s communications manager, Simone Noemdoe. “It’s translating science in popular materials and getting it out there.”

A public lecture, Alien in my Backyard: Xenophobia or Serious Threat, will also be given on Tuesday August 19 at 6pm at the Kirstenbosch conference hall.

Though the Working for Water programme may be better known for training unemployed people to clear alien invasive species in inaccessible locations, research has become a core part of better managing scarce water and other resources.

About R15-million, or 2,5%, of the project’s yearly R400-million budget, is spent on research that provides crucial information on managing water and biodiversity and how to effectively add economic value to the cleared plant matter.

The research also makes financial sense: about R1 000 is earned for every rand spent.

“The economists’ ears are going up and they say that’s not possible,” says Christo Marais, executive manager of scientific services at Working for Water. “[But] these are the kinds of results and they are going to be presented at the conference.”

Research has shown, for example, that more than 60-million cubic metres of water were added to local dams after alien vegetation was cleared from the Sabie Sands catchment area in Mpumalanga.

And a river clearing project in Athlone on the Cape Flats produced between 8 000 and 12 000 litres of extra water a day.

“We have pretty good ideas what to do. The challenge is to translate this into what happens to the water afterwards,” Marais says.

Organisers are also concerned about what happens to the workers when they leave the programme or its activities end in an area. “Where do you exit people to when there are no jobs available?” Marais asks.

Working for Water was launched in 1995 with a mandate to help eradicate poverty, and the programme has created about 20 000 temporary jobs and training opportunities this financial year.

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