Matatiele residents in the Eastern Cape struggle daily to access domestic water, but a cost-effective solution to protect local springs is helping people secure enough for their basic needs.
Dumile Mafunda tells his three-year-old son Thandoxolo to wait at the top of the sandstone cliff while he climbs carefully down the rickety ladder and across the small crevasse.
He is on his way to collect the second of three 20 litre buckets of water waiting at the spring at the base of the deep ravine, another 20 metres’ vertical descent from the base of the ladder.
These three buckets will last his household (six people) a day; tomorrow he must repeat the process again, sometimes waiting in a queue with others at the spring. Sometimes someone will help him lug the buckets up the rickety ladder.
Today, he is working alone and its 35°C with a howling wind. Rain has not fallen since April. The river has stopped flowing, and water for all domestic needs, including washing, must come from this hard-to-access spring.
A Story of Hardship
The tiny hamlet of Tsitsong, a part of the greater Sibi Traditional Area near the Lesotho border, has a rough gravel access road over a single-lane bridge servicing a population of several hundred households, most of whom depend on this spring for their water.
A few other springs up slope of the village have run dry. This ladder-accessed spring is dangerous to get to, but at least it’s protected from livestock and the water is clear.
A groundwater scheme installed by the municipality years ago does not function as the pipes are broken and diesel is rarely delivered.
When diesel is available, it generally cannot pump sufficient volume to overcome the leaking pipes. Tap stands have also been vandalised. People in this area need water; they need supplies that will see them through this and future droughts.
Older people have to pay younger more agile residents to collect their water for them, while others make use of another more easily accessible spring seep below the village.
But the latter is open to livestock which, despite attempts by villagers to protect it with rocks and zinc, is susceptible to muddying and contamination by thirsty, digging cattle. If only there was a way to secure this water for human consumption…
And there is. In the neighbouring village of Naledi, a simple cost-effective solution to secure another local spring provides a solution to Dumile’s daily challenge.
Using a method developed by Maluti GSM Engineering in the mid-1990s, it is possible to rapidly secure spring supply with limited funding and minimum disturbance to the spring eye and surroundings, along with optimal use of local artisans and materials.
It costs on average R60 000 per spring all in (material, technical supervision, transport and local labour). Many residents provide voluntary assistance to expedite the work.
Under the governance of the Sibi Traditional Authority, eight local residents, supervised by Mohabe Mojela and Petros Mojakisane from local NGO Environmental Rural Solutions (ERS), are completing their third spring protection scheme.
This work is being funded by the World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF-SA) and The Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN), but forms part of a broader initiative supported by the Nedbank Green Trust, FirstRand Foundation and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.
Matatiele lies within a strategic water source area, a high-rainfall area which is part of the 10% of South Africa’s land which generates 50% of its runoff.
WWF-SA prioritises work in these critical areas and has been working with ERS to improve the condition of the catchment for several years with financial support from the Nedbank Green Trust and Sanlam.
ERS is also training interns to help with spring protection, cattle grazing management and alien plant clearing to restore the ecological infrastructure in the mountain watershed.
Identifying The Springs
Mahabe spent several weeks with his ERS colleagues and the local village headmen of the area, identifying and measuring spring flow to try and pin down the highest priority sources for protection with limited funds.
Five of a potential 48 springs were prioritised as the most important, centrally accessible, potable and reliable by the local leadership, together with ERS and the district municipality who are also assisting with biochemical analysis of water quality to monitor any contamination threats.
Mahabe and Petros design and supervise the spring-protection work, based on the specific spring structure, terrain and soil morphology.
A team of eight local artisans then sets to excavating around the source to protect and gather the water from the emergent ‘eyes’, create a settling tank for fine silt, and a small gravity-fed storage box with a tap and base for easy filling of containers. The work takes on average two weeks to complete.
This simple methodology provides reliable access to a protected water source, the overflow from which is split between washing use, a livestock drinking area and return to the seepage system to feed the wider ecological reserve which sustains the replenishment in the critical water source area of the greater Eastern Cape.
As this work rolls out and with sufficient funding, the hope is that as many of the 48 suitable springs as possible will be protected, making Dumile’s daily battle a thing of the past.
*ERS is a social enterprise run by partners Lipalesa Sissie Matela and Nicky McLeod, who were the winners of WWF-SA’s Living Planet Award 2019 for their work in the Matatiele region.
With a range of partners, they convene the civil-driven uMzimvubu Catchment Partnership (UCP) which aims to secure healthy resilient ecosystem functions to provide services such as clean water and healthy grazing, benefiting local and people downstream.