The country's third largest economy, the eThekwini Municipality, spends up to R135-million on chemicals to clean water for the city and surrounds every month. That's more than the government's Working on Wetlands spends in a year to restore water catchments throughout the country.
If the city wants to reduce the cost of cleaning its water supply, it must address the sources of pollution that contaminate the uMngeni River and its tributaries. This means repairing ageing infrastructure, such as sewerage plants, and stopping pollution from things such as agricultural runoff and failing storm water systems.
But there's something else the city can do, something that has huge returns on investment, will cut water-treatment costs to the benefit of the broader local economy, and will create employment at a time when the economy is shedding jobs – it can restore and protect the wetlands and water catchments that feed the uMngeni system that supplies the city's water needs.
This thinking is at the core of the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership (UEIP), which will see a series of projects being rolled out in the river catchment that are geared towards restoring or protecting these important "water factories".
During National Water Week, it can serve us well to think about how important our ecological infrastructure is to the healthy functioning of our economy.
At the unveiling of the UEIP in Durban last year, we heard how much the municipality spends each month to clean often polluted water drawn from the uMngeni.
We heard how the city's demand for water has outstripped the available supply. And we discussed how our first response to water needs is usually to come at it with costly engineering solutions such as building more dams.
But if we take care of the ecological infrastructure – the wetlands and water catchments upstream of municipal water treatment plants – we can save money while protecting our existing infrastructure. Bridges and dams with their associated pipes and valves, for instance, are badly damaged by highly sedimented water or by flooding.
When wetlands, grassland rain catchments and river banks are healthy and working properly, they catch and regulate how water translates from rain into river flow. During the rainy season they slow its flow, preventing floods. During the dry season, the water banked away underground or in the wetlands trickles into the system, replenishing the rivers.
Municipalities are under pressure to deliver services to their constituents. By partnering with other organisations to rehabilitate degraded ecological infrastructure or to protect healthy ones, they are able to realise other benefits, too. Setting people to work on restoring these systems is a labour-intensive task, whether it is patching up erosion dongas, clearing invasive alien trees or mending damaged river banks. This means money invested in repairing ecological infrastructure can return additional dividends in terms of jobs.
Since the launch of the Working for Water programme in 1995, which was designed to address the twin challenges of restoring water catchments that have been overrun by water-thirsty, invasive alien plants and creating jobs for unskilled people, the programme has created the equivalent of more than 7 500 full-time jobs, earning wages amounting to nearly R170-million, while clearing more than two million hectares of invasive plants.
By 2012, Working for Water and its spin-off operations – Working on Wetlands, Working on Land and Working on Fire – had created slightly more than 11 000 full-time equivalent jobs. This translates into the flow of R243-million into rural homes where employment opportunities are scarce.
A 2012 Development Bank of South Africa report estimates that, if we invest ambitiously in these four projects, we could create half a million jobs in the next 15 years. That's equivalent to half the jobs shed by the economy since the recession began in 2008.
According to Statistics South Africa, and reiterated by President Jacob Zuma during the State of the Nation address last month, the million jobs lost in this time raised the official unemployment rate to 25% or 4.4-million people by early 2011.
The uMngeni project is the local implementation of the kind of partnerships and visionary thinking that make this sort of national-level ambition a reality. Other spin-offs to the regional economy include improved agricultural production, protection of the cultural benefits for people who harvest medicinal and other plants, reduced flood damage and greater resilience to climate change.
Three pilot projects are currently being rolled out – the Palmiet River Rehabilitation Project, the Baynespruit Rehabilitation Project and the Save the Midmar Dam Project – in which 17 different organisations will restore, maintain and manage the water factories feeding into the uMngeni.
These important partnerships show that the water sector and municipalities recognise the critical role that ecological infrastructure plays in water service delivery in the greater uMngeni catchment, and that we need to pull together with integrated, long-term solutions such as this. This heralds a new era of water management, something we hope to see rolled out by municipalities across the country.
Kristal Maze is the chief director of biodiversity planning and policy advice at the South African National Biodiversity Institute.
Leonie Joubert is a freelance science writer and author.