Is SA losing battle against invasive alien plants?

The government’s key Working for Water (WFW) programme, aimed at eradicating invasive alien plants that cause billions of rands’ damage to the economy each year, appears set to fall further and further behind in its efforts to contain the problem.

According to figures tabled at a meeting of Parliament’s water affairs and forestry portfolio committee on Wednesday, the rate at which WFW plans to clear the plants over the next three years is considerably less than the rate at which they are spreading.

Briefing MPs, water affairs’ chief financial officer Onesmus Ayaya said projections are that 120 000ha will undergo ”initial” clearing during the next financial year (2008/09).

Another 120 000ha will be cleared of invasive alien plants the year after, and a further 150 000 hectares in 2010/11.

According to the government’s most recent South Africa Yearbook, alien plants have so far invaded more than 10-million hectares, or about 8% of the country. It says their numbers are projected to double over the next 15 years.

At this rate, WFW will be ”chasing the target all the time”, African National Congress MP Jonathan Arendse suggested. ”If we continue at this rate, will we ever catch up?” he asked.

He noted WFW is a ”flagship” programme, and questioned whether enough money is being allocated to deal with the problem, and if this amount should not be increased.

Department officials did not have enough time to respond to his questions in the meeting, but said they would do so later in writing.

Figures tabled earlier by Ayaya show the programme is set to receive R472,3-million from the government next year, R521,2-million in 2009/10 and R665,9-million in 2010/11.

The WFW programme — started in 1995 — has received international acclaim for its efforts; the labour-intensive nature of the work it carries out has brought employment to tens of thousands of unemployed people, especially in poverty-stricken rural areas.

The programme’s website says of the 9 000 plants ”imported” into South Africa in the past, 198 are classified as invasive. Among the better known are various species of acacia, including the ubiquitous black wattle, the Port Jackson and the so-called rooikrans.

”Invasive alien plants pose a direct threat not only to South Africa’s biological diversity, but also to water security, the ecological functioning of natural systems and the productive use of land.

”They intensify the impact of fires and floods … increase soil erosion and divert enormous amounts of water from more productive uses,” WFW says. — Sapa

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