Wet-land-grab and the degradation of the Witwatersrand watershed

Wetlands are of great value to us all, a bridge between terrestrial and aquatic worlds, they are nature’s most productive ecosystems and the home to a wide variety of species – important breeding grounds for many creatures.

As economic water purifiers they are unequalled, providing space for masses of micro-organisms that live in soil and roots can effectively remove and break down the complex toxic molecules that we produce, back into their harmless components.

Notwithstanding all the good that they bring, wetlands are also our most threatened ecosystems, like the the Witwatersrand, one of our most polluted and degraded systems. It has been hidden and forgotten, yet is probably our country’s most important and largest wetland system.

The sources and headwaters of our major river systems, the Crocodile-Limpopo and Vaal-Orange all rise from this watershed on the continental divide and flows in all directions. Very strong permanent fountains form large and spectacular wetlands, that form numerous perennial rivers.

The destruction of this ancient freshwater paradise was started by the mining of this reef – the largest gold concentration on the planet, and followed by the building of our largest metropolis right on these sources, with scant regard for them – it continues to this day.

Kaalfontein Wetland, Tembisa

Probably the largest and most threatened of these wetland is the Kaalfontein in Tembisa, a last green area surrounded by densely populated areas. In the last few years like many others it has been seriously destroyed, in areas irreparably so.

Hundreds of thousands of tons of building rubble has been dumped into this wetland, to level it for informal housing, still ongoing, almost every ten minutes a twenty ton truck arrives.

An arrangement where unscrupulous developers and desperate locals even pay the drivers to dump and level their stands – the trucks save the fuel and high fees charged by regular landfills, so it is unlikely to stop.

Stripped of natural vegetation which would have provided flood attenuation, the wide flood plane has been narrowed to a few meters in places. Hundreds of these shacks were washed away in the recent floods, now they are being rebuilt in brick on raised foundations, right next to the streams, and dangerously inside the flood zones.

Rubbish dumped in wetlands

To make matters worse the wetlands are also used as rubbish dumps, innumerable shopping bags full are piled up at the sides of bridges or thrown into the stream, children often with the family garbage to throw it in the water. The favored dumping site as the water actually removes the trash eventually, unlike the municipality, as the massive piles are a health risk with huge rats scurrying around in them.

The dumping is the worst where massive recurring leaks from blocked and overflowing mains are. Raw sewerage makes these streams putrid and life threatening to locals and the people who are now squatting without services on the banks, all of their own waste goes into the streams as well.

Polluted at source – the springs still comes out strong and clear at the top of the wetland but after a few hundred meters it is grey and rotten, here the kids still play. Further down illegal sand mining is eating away at the banks and exasperating the already huge erosion and siltation downstream.

This sad state of affairs is true of many other wetland sources, what chances do our rivers have if their origins are so badly polluted.

Hennops River – a silent genocide

The Hennops downstream is the worst polluted River of this system, filled with thousands of tons of plastic – about 300 tons were caught in one month at a single litter trap net that we erected lower down. This river’s ancient ecosystems have been destroyed in a decade – a silent genocide that has turned it into a lifeless wasteland.

We must save our freshwater sources, they are crucial to our water security, we’re busy with the Rivers of Origin Reserve, a project to project as strategic water sources all the rivers of the Witwatersrand basin, from source to confluence – to form biodiversity corridors in which to restore original life.

Text by Willem Snyman, Fresh.ngo