Water is Life: Your Vote for CI Helps Dry South African Communities

The Walt Disney Company recently selected CI’s Restoring Wetlands in Namaqualand project to be a recipient of funding from Disney’s Friends for Change: Project Green. First place gets $100,000, so tell the kids in your life to vote today at disney.com/projectgreen — and have them help us spread the word! Below, Eric Coppenger reflects on the Namaqualand successes he’s seen firsthand.

One summer during college, I worked as a backcountry ranger in Utah’s Zion National Park. It turned out to be one of the most amazing times of my life, but one thing my friends and I didn’t like about our job was cutting tamarisk trees out of streams flowing through those beautiful gold- and red-hued canyons. We knew it was important, but I’m not sure we completely got it — all we knew was how tedious it seemed.

It sounds counterintuitive to say that removing trees can improve a local water supply, but when those trees are an invasive or non-native species like tamarisk or poplar, they use up large amounts of groundwater.

Now I understand! I am in Namaqualand in northwestern South Africa with a global gathering of people from CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). Partners and CI folks from far-flung places like China, Peru, Madagascar, Guatemala, Cambodia and Ecuador have gathered here in Namaqualand to learn about the work the South African team is doing with private and communal ranchers to improve livelihoods and save amazingly diverse succulent plants and flowers from extinction.

As we drove up the N7 highway two days ago, I was reminded that the community we are visiting only got about 9.5 inches [24 centimeters] of rainfall last year. When it is this rocky and this dry, every living thing — just to survive — has to make as much use as possible of the little water available. This is why so many of the plants here are so spectacular — they burst into bloom in September in amazing displays of color that blanket the rocky surface, looking to maximize the little opportunity they have to reproduce. Many have developed adaptations that seem bizarre upon first glance, but ingenious once you understand their predicament.

Of course, just as we see in the American West, humans have taken more than our share of the water here. People in Namaqualand are hardy, resourceful and closely connected to their land, But they also love their ranching, and certain herding practices have eaten away at the wetlands. Use of the wetlands at the wrong time of year can lead to their destruction, and alien species that we have introduced can take over — further draining this important source of life.

Today, we visited one of these ranching communities — Leliefontein. Residents of Leliefontein share communal land for grazing, and in recent years there were too many animals grazing in this space. The CSP has helped herders reduce their stock in an economically viable way. CI also worked with a South African program known as Working for Wetlands to remove non-native poplar trees. Like the tamarisk in Zion, we knew these beautiful shade trees were taking up too much water. The results of these actions are a bit hard to imagine until you see what we saw today. Shortly after the removal of the trees, a spring began gushing with cool clear water — so much so that the community had to build a containment to manage the increased flow. When drained, the well used to take an hour to refill. Now it takes 30 minutes.

This improved access to fresh water is important in this dry climate — acting as an emergency supply when municipal water sources run dry. Rehabilitation of water sources such as this has also increased the amount available for the ranchers downstream — critical to maintaining the herds they rely on for food security. It also increases the chances of survival for the interesting plant species that attract thousands of visitors to this place every year. It’s amazing that removing a tree can improve local conditions so dramatically.

Eric Coppenger is the director of resource strategy in CI’s Africa and Madagascar field division. Vote for the Namaqualand wetlands project at Disney’s Friends for Change: Project Green website — voting ends on January 10.

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