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Making The Case: Ecological Infrastructure For Water Security In South Africa


Ecological infrastructure refers to naturally functioning ecosystems that deliver valuable services to people. Ecological infrastructure is the nature-based equivalent of built infrastructure and is just as important for providing services and underpinning socio-economic development. It’s not only an under-realised asset for cities and their hinterlands, but also one whose potential could be relatively easily unlocked. Through the concept of ecological infrastructure, South Africa has made significant advances in bridging the traditional divide between the biodiversity sector and the development agenda. The value proposition is that of ecological infrastructure as a national asset which is under-invested in and under-realised. The ecological infrastructure message has resonated strongly with key mainstreaming target audiences and has been readily embraced by municipal managers, engineers, water service authorities, national development planners, public finance, water and disaster risk policy makers. It has required common-sense arguments and some compelling visual images, combined with an assurance of a good science foundation. It has also required an understanding of mainstreaming as heavily context-dependent and always based on relationships built over time; and skilful practice of the art of being in the right place at the right time with a contribution that meets the immediate need of a high-level official or politician.

Problem, challenge or context: 

Biodiversity in South Africa is not always appropriately integrated into development decision making and the sector is under resourced. The sector’s messages, which are not framed in ways that resonate with government priorities, are often not heard. A widely held perception was that biodiversity conservation is not consistent with the development objectives of the country, and often conflicts with these. We needed to show how biodiversity is relevant to government’s priority issues of the day – for South Africa these are job creation, poverty alleviation and rural development. Traditional biodiversity messages of doom and gloom were not working and reasons for this needed to be understood and overcome.

Water is a critical strategic natural resource in South Africa. It is essential for growth and development, as well as the health and well-being of the people of South Africa. Although this principle is generally accepted, it is not always well understood or appreciated. Despite the fact that South Africa is a naturally water stressed country, further challenged by the need to support growth and development as well as potential climate change impact, the resource is not receiving the priority status and attention it deserves. 

Of particular importance are strategic water source areas, which make up only 8% of South Africa’s land area but deliver 50% of river flow, often supporting growth and development in cities some distance away (Nel et al, 2013). Minimising land uses that reduce streamflow (such as plantation forestry) or affect water quality (such as mining) is especially important in these areas, as is keeping wetlands intact and clearing invasive plants.

Specific elements of components: 
  • The Ecological Infrastructure concept and framing enhances the ability of the biodiversity sector to engage effectively with other sectors, especially the water sector and finance ministry.
  • Public dialogues with municipal managers, engineers, national development planners, public finance and policy makers were an effective way of raising awareness about the concept. This resulted in significant uptake of the concept into government policies and plans, and also created a great deal of positive media interest.
  • The value of ecological infrastructure was also conveyed electronically through compelling case studies and media articles.
Key lessons learned: 
  • The term ‘ecological infrastructure’ has proven to be an effective concept (a boundary concept) to communicate to government and business audiences in a range of sectors.
  • It is important to be as specific as possible about the benefits arising from ecological infrastructure investments, and the nature of the investment (e.g. restoration, protection)
  • To unlock the full potential of ecological infrastructure for South Africa better planning and active investment are required. These should be supported by building the science base, and measuring and monitoring returns on the investments made.
  • It is beneficial to secure professional expertise from the communications sector, for example, marketing companies and professional popular science writers.
  • It was important to build capacity within the biodiversity sector to be able to communicate effectively on these issues – “doom and gloom” messages do not resonate with the target audience.
Impacts and outcomes: 

The new South African National Water Resources Strategy recognises ecological infrastructure and states that these areas “form the foundational ecological infrastructure on which a great deal of built infrastructure for water services depends; they are thus strategic national assets that are vital for water security” (DWA, 2013: 42). A newly identified Strategic Integrated Project (SIP) in the Presidential Infrastructure Programme, the Ecological Infrastructure for Water Security SIP, is aimed at improving South Africa’s water resources and other environmental goods and services through the conservation, protection, restoration, rehabilitation and/or maintenance of key ecological infrastructure. Spearheaded by the Water & Sanitation Department Head, a catchment wide partnership was catalyzed to improve Durban’s water quality and quantity. 19 organizations including government, civil society and academic have signed an MOU committing them to an ecological infrastructure landscape scale pilot programme in the uMngeni Catchment (Durban’s primary water catchment). Within this partnership a number of interventions are underway to restore and protect sites with ecological infrastructure that have been identified as critical for water security.

Contact details: 
Srijana Joshi
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