Farmer Pieter Kruger stands smiling on a large weir built on a river in the Baviaanskloof area that provides water to South Africa’s fifth largest city. Tall and lean, he looks out over a gathering pool, delighted at the first time it has filled up enough to have the water roll over his shoes.
“The actual restoration work happens here on this farm, but the benefits also flow to the users downstream, so in the long run everyone is going to benefit from this.”
Land degradation and desertification is now affecting 168 countries around the world, according to the UN, but many here believe there is hope. Living Lands, an international not-for-profit organisation, started working here in 2008 to bring together the users and beneficiaries of this water catchment; government, communities and farmers like Kruger.
Together they have already planted more than 3.7 million trees to try to stop land degradation and restore the degraded water catchment system.
One of the things that makes the project remarkable is funding from South Africa’s biggest agricultural insurer Santam. Rather than just assessing risk and charging premiums to match it, they are actively trying to reduce risk.
“This is a business imperative for us, the likelihood of our sustainability is highly dependent on this,” said Ray-Ann Sedres, head of integrated sustainability at Santam. She feels that projects such as this are crucial for the company to survive in a warming world.
All this is good news for the 1.4 million people in nearby Port Elizabeth who have been suffering under water restrictions off and on since 2007.
The city has doubled in size since 1997, while increasing water delivery to under-serviced areas. Combined with climate change these activities have brewed a perfect storm.
In the 20th century farmers here were subsidised to run as many sheep as they could and cut water channels into the land to aid runoff. These practices wiped out the subtropical thicket, a forest which retained water during periods of low rainfall. Compounding that, South African scientists say the changing climate now causes rain to fall in more isolated storms, which in turn cause even more runoff.
This “double whammy” is typical of degraded lands around the world, according to conservation group IUCN, which recently highlighted the restoration project as a successful way to regenerate landscapes.
The approach developed relationships between everyone who has a stake in the water, the land and the jobs that depend upon it, and in turn started restoring the landscape, planting trees, creating weirs and funding it through public and private finance gathered from users.
Restoring water catchment for Port Elizabeth, South Africa
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A public and private initiative by NGO Living Lands, the South African government, insurance companies and water users in Port Elizabeth is restoring the main water catchment for the city with indigenous carbon-sequestrating trees and helping to alleviate the problems of climate change. Photograph: Jeffrey Barbee/Alliance Earth.org
Sedres accepts that Santam’s expertise doesn’t lie in planting trees. “The strength of our business does not lie in land rehabilitation, it lies in the fact that we understand risk.”
According to Sedres, this risk analysis is being used by municipalities and other partners to help with disaster planning and the communal effort to halt land degradation. Santam is also helping drive partnerships with local and national government in order to address climate change issues and put disaster mitigation strategies in place before they happen.
“Santam knows that if we don’t make sure that there is water downstream where business sits, then business stops and business continuity claims arise,” she said.
Support is flowing not only from the South African government but from green economy investors and large international supporters, such as Commonland, who partnered with Living Lands to bring international impact investors, big business in Port Elizabeth and the insurance industry to the table.
Pieter Kruger believes that his farm lost a total of 1,000 cubic metres of topsoil per hectare until restoration began. The new weir, together with reforestation, helps slow the runoff that swept over his land.
“It’s so lovely, you know, to see the water.” He smiles broadly as he looks out over the pool. “This is just the beginning of the whole restoration process, but we have turned things around here for the better.”