Durban - One of South Africa’s most ambitious water and environment conservation projects has come under fire, with concerns that political interference, bureaucracy and heavy emphasis on job creation are undermining its main purpose.
The Working for Water project, which has won more than 100 national and international awards, was launched 21 years ago to control dense infestations of alien trees and plants across the country, while simultaneously creating thousands of jobs and protecting biological diversity, water and farmland.
However, according to Stellenbosch University ecologist Professor Brian van Wilgen, the job-creation “tail” has started to wag the conservation “dog” and there is a danger that millions of rands could be wasted unless “bold changes” are made to the operations of Working for Water.
Writing in the latest issue of the scientific journal Biological Conservation, Van Wilgen acknowledges that Working for Water has cleared almost 50% of alien plants in certain parts of the biologically rich Cape floristic region.
However, the project has only reached less than 13% of the total invaded area in this region, partly because the control teams tend to target the flattest and most easily accessible areas rather than rugged mountain areas with no roads.
Van Wilgen says while it may be difficult to implement far-reaching changes in an established government programme, he cautions that there is a risk that “a great deal of money would have been, and will continue to be, wasted”.
In another scientific article published last year, Van Wilgen said biologists and water experts had battled for decades to secure funding for alien invader plant control.
However, they managed to attract the support of politicians and funders in the mid-1990s after re-framing their concerns to highlight the damage alien plants posed to South Africa’s scarce water resources, along with the potential to create new jobs in poor communities.
With the support of former water affairs minister Kader Asmal, the project was born in 1995 and currently provides more than 63 000 jobs to poor communities involved in cutting and clearing alien trees and vegetation such as pine, gum, wattle, chromolaena or hakea.
But, according to Van Wilgen, previous reviews suggested that Working for Water had initiated too many projects and targeted too many alien species in too many areas to be effective.
There were also suggestions that several projects had been selected for political or logistical expedience.
In a paper published last year, Van Wilgen said project managers had to operate in a bureaucratic, rule-bound environment that made it difficult to respond according to priorities.
“There is ongoing political interference in the form of demands to create employment in areas that are not priorities for alien plant control.”
He said the ability to create jobs was an added bonus to the project.
“However the message has been swopped around, and the creation of direct employment has become the feature that makes the programme most attractive to politicians and funders ... immediate job creation in the short term has been traded off against natural resource protection that, in the longer term, would be needed to underpin economic activity that would arguably protect many more jobs - a case of the tail that has come to wag the dog.”
In his most recent paper, Van Wilgen suggests that project managers should consider using fire and machinery (chainsaws and brush cutters) more often, rather than manual labour only.
Rather than trying to clear several species of alien plants, Working for Water should also consider reducing control efforts to pine trees and hakea bushes in the Cape floristic region as well as investing more money in biological control (where alien moths, insects and pathogens are released to target alien species).
Responding to some of the criticisms on Sunday, Working for Water head Dr Guy Preston acknowledged that pine tree invasions in the Cape region posed one of the most serious threats to water security and also contributed to erosion, fires and the loss of productive land.
“We would strongly differ with the authors regarding the fact that we take a labour-intensive approach to our work, and that this is inhibiting our efficiency.
“There is no doubt in our minds whatsoever that without this labour-intensive approach, we would not have remotely the resources we have been afforded to do our work.”
While there were cases where machinery and biological control could be more efficient, “we do not agree that the focus on jobs is inhibiting our efforts to control invasives”.
“The fact that the programme has been so successful in providing work that matters - work that has high returns on investment - to so many previously unemployed people has enhanced the budget and capacity of the work.”
He acknowledged that the project operated in a bureaucratic environment and that changing course created challenges, “but we have built up something that no one else has done, anywhere in the world”, said Preston, noting that Working for Water had won more than 100 national or international awards over the past two decades.