Living Lands provides examples of how to better manage areas for farming and for water catchment rehabilitation.

The World faces a water crisis. Data from the World Resource Institute show that 25 countries – home to one-quarter of the global population – face extremely high water stress each year. With changing climates, more infrequent rainfall patterns, and growing world populations, WRI predicts that 31% of global GDP – $70 trillion – will be exposed to high water stress by 2050.

Enhancing water infrastructure and ensuring water availability requires landscape-level interventions that improve the overall health and functioning of an ecosystem, and which lead to multiple benefits for local communities. Living Lands, one of Commonland’s core partners demonstrates the possibilities for water catchment rehabilitation while supporting farmland management in South Africa.

Rehabilitating the Baviaanskloof and Langkloof landscapes: a critical water catchment

The Baviaanskloof and Langkloof landscapes sit in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Together, these landscapes form the water catchments of the Baviaanskoof, Kromme, and Kouga rivers that feed dams supplying the city of Gqeberha, home to 1.3 million inhabitants. The region has been experiencing below-average annual rainfall since 2015 and large floods and longer droughts are now commonplace. Rehabilitating water catchment functionality requires restoring the natural functioning of the landscapes to replenish groundwater, reduce soil erosion and water runoff, and build a sustainable water supply.

Working on a landscape level

Research shows that nature-based solutions are the most affordable and effective way to ensure healthy water infrastructure. For Living Lands, the water catchment restoration is part of the wider ambition to create a healthy landscape for local communities. “The rehabilitation work that we do has long-term impact supporting the land productivity for the farming but also for improving the functionality as a water catchment,” says Liz Metcalfe, Landscape Coordinator at Living Lands. Up until now Living Lands in partnership with the Baviaanskloof Bewarea have conducted rehabilitation work across 10,000ha.

Digging bunds and ponds allows water to infiltrate the ground while gabion structures and sediment traps slow the flow of flash floods and capture sediment, helping to reduce soil erosion. “We’re looking at the improvement of the catchment over the long-term” explains Liz, “you want water to work its way through the system over time and feed the dams slowly”.

In other areas, rehabilitation requires extensive invasive species removal. Trees like black wattle (Acacia mearnsii), pine, and eucalyptus have spread rapidly across the mountainous veld – open landscapes dominated by grass and shrubs, iconic to the region. And as water-thirsty plants, the invasives disrupt the local water cycle, take water out of the system, and push out native vegetation thereby reducing ground cover.

Regenerating plants – like honeybush (Cyclopia intermedia) – and grasses indigenous to the landscape to replace the invasive species as well as rehabilitate bare areas is key to the healthy functioning of the landscape, and the impact is already clear. “With the little rain we’ve been having, we see the grass seeding work coming into play and bare areas are starting to become vegetated again” describes Liz.

Some farmers in the region are also transitioning to regenerative agricultural practices to create more resilient production in extended periods of drought. Techniques like composting, mulching, and cover crops can support water conservation in cultivated areas, whilst in the combined zone, rehabilitating honeybush drives veld management and offers a diversified income stream.

From veld to tap: Water catchment rehabilitation is end to end

These activities support farmers to adapt to changing climates at the same time as supporting water users downstream. And yet, when looking at water in the region, there is a shared responsibility beyond the catchment – from rainfall on the mountainous veld to taps in the city.

Estimates suggest that a third of the water entering Gqeberha is lost due to leakages. Farmers can adapt their practices while restoring the natural functioning of the water catchment, but ultimately, water conservation and savings are required from everyone to ensure long-term and sustainable water availability. Fixing basic infrastructure needs to go hand in hand with water catchment rehabilitation taking place in the landscape.

“You can’t put all the emphasis on the farmers upstream who in drought times are under pressure themselves,” Liz describes, “water security requires a long-term, landscape-level, multi-faceted approach with a range of role players.”