The Msunduzi and Umgeni rivers are crucial natural resources for thousands of people living in KwaZulu-Natal, but levels of contamination in the rivers have increased dramatically over the past 10 years.
The Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust stepped in during 2005 with ways to address both river health and social and economic development.
The river systems had become “badly degraded through neglect and over-exploitation”, says the trust’s chairperson, David Still.
“Instead of complaining about the state of our rivers, we would rather do something positive to rehabilitate them and to change the perception that decline is inevitable.”
Urban rivers are highly stressed in cities all over the world, he adds. “Our vision is for healthy rivers that support healthy communities.”
The trust’s role has been to work in partnership with other organisations, from both civil society and the government.
“We recognise that the problems with the health of the rivers are large and have not developed overnight. Our vision is ambitious and will only be achieved through progressive, combined and sustained actions,” says Still.
Apart from ensuring cleaner rivers, job creation for members of local communities has also been an achievement.
“For the last four years we had between 100 and 250 people working for us at any one time,” says Still.
One of the core elements of the campaign is a River Care Team that focuses on a particular length of river at a time, tackling whatever environmental problems are presented.
“This could be illegal dumping, invasive alien vegetation, industrial pollution, sewage pollution, illegal sand mining and so on. We have provided many people with work experience and training, boosting their confidence and making them more employable by others.”
Still says the long-term vision is to create a river custodianship system where the “respective landowners in a catchment each take responsibility for their section of river”.
The trust is helping to set up such a system on the Dargle River, one of the tributaries in the upper catchment area. It also supports a number of local conservancy groups, each of which focuses on a particular stretch of river at low cost.
The trust has also engaged children in its river revitalisation efforts. It has enlisted 73 schools in its eco-club programme and involved more than 3 400 learners in its river clean-up campaigns.
Its effort in monitoring sewage spills into the rivers and lobbying for improvements to sewage infrastructure have led to significant capital investment by the Umgeni Water and the Msunduzi Municipality in upgraded sewage works.
Another problem area requiring clean-up and monitoring has been illegal waste dumping. In response, the trust set up the Mpophomeni Sanitation Education Project in 2011, a community monitoring and education programme.
“Local community members volunteer as ‘Enviro Champs’ and monitor and report on sewage leaks, illegal dumping and other environmental problems,” says Still.
“The Enviro Champs have become well known in the communities as the people to whom such problems are reported.
“They in turn ensure that these issues are properly reported to ward councillors and responsible municipal units, and also attend ward and municipal meetings to monitor progress and promote accountability.”