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What does water mean to you?

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We all need to be aware of the scarcity of water and where it comes from. Image credit: Forest Stewardship Council of South Africa

What does water mean to you?

By Gerard Busse, marketing manager at the Forest Stewardship Council of South Africa

19 March 2021 – On the 22 March we celebrate World Water day and the theme this year is “Valuing Water” and “What does water mean to you?”  It is all about what water means to people, its true value, where it comes from and how can we better protect this vital resource.

Bringing this closer to home Gerard Busse, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Southern Africa Marketing Manager had a conversation with Dr David Lindley from World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa, who has been integrally involved in water stewardship programs in South Africa.

Why has WWF-SA put such a big focus on water in their South Africa activities?

Firstly, our rivers and more specifically our freshwater ecosystems are not healthy and as a country probably one of our most endangered ecosystems. The reasons are various but probably the biggest culprits are the poor management of our water resources, pollution, erosion, and poor development decision making.

Secondly, for our people, freshwater is crucial to a sustainable South African economy and improving livelihoods of all. For this we need a regular supply of clear water from freshwater ecosystems, which are rapidly declining and are in urgent need to be rehabilitated due to degradation.

Water and electricity are two of the most important limiting resources to our country, with water even more critical than electricity. We can manage without electricity for short periods of time as seen with load shedding, but water is essential for our survival. Unfortunately, people often do not value water until it runs out, and we collectively need to ensure that we have some water, for all, forever.

How did WWF-SA get involved in water stewardship?

WWF SA first got involved in water stewardship 28 years ago through addressing the terrible state of our wetlands in 1991, when the WWF-Mondi Water Stewardship Partnership was born. This partnership then broadened through focusing on other critical water stewardship issues at a landscape or catchment scale.

15 years ago WWF-SA engaged with forestry companies and other corporates including Sanlam, South African Breweries (now AbInbev) and Woolworths to name a few to strengthen water stewardship in their operations.

More recently WWF-SA also worked with the City of Cape Town by raising awareness of around water scarcity issues, providing practical solutions that the public and businesses could adapt for using less water, and dealing with the water challenges arising as the City barreled towards Day Zero.

Water stewardship is also a very important theme for WWF internationally. It is vital for all stakeholders to realise that it is more than just focusing on water stewardship issues within the fence line of your property, and that what we do has a ripple effect on neighbours and downstream users. That is why, for example, forestry companies are adopting a landscape perspective in managing their forestry operations. It is a very important part of The FSC Principles and Criteria, and dealing with issues such alien invasive species, working on issues such as overgrazing of open areas not planted to plantation trees, and collaborating with multi-stakeholder groups on water governance issues. In this way, forestry companies are supporting the management of water resources on a catchment basis within their scope of operations.

WWF has developed tools to assist businesses to do this such as the  Water Risk Filter, an online tool designed to Explore, Assess, Respond & Value water risk which helps businesses identify the risks specific to their businesses and provides ideas on how to deal with these risks: https://waterriskfilter.panda.org/


What have been WWF-SA’s greatest achievements with respect to water stewardship?

Raising awareness amongst corporates and the public about water risk and how it affects them and providing tools, so they begin to understand the gravity of the situation and find solutions to deal with the challenges around water.

The   WWF-Mondi Water Stewardship Partnership has been a catalyst in Wetlands restitution leading to the government’s Working for Wetlands program which has pumped over a billion Rand into wetlands restitution and creating ongoing employment for thousands of people since 2001.

It has also been a further catalyst in developing the concept of Strategic Water Source Areas (SWSA’s), which was developed by WWF-SA, South African National Biodiversity Institute and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.  The SWSAs cover only 10% of South Africa’s land but are responsible for generating 50% of our freshwater resources. These areas are therefore vital to the economy of South Africa, which is classified as a water scarce country.  There are 26 of these SWSA’s and WWF-SA has been lobbying government to focus freshwater conservation in these areas.

Furthermore, WWF-SA and other organisations have been raising over R100 millions for implementing freshwater ecosystems project implementation in these SWSAs, such as:

  • High altitude Alien Plant clearing increasing water availability
  • Creation of SMME’s through making use of cleared alien plant biomass
  • Green job creation though manufacturing FSC certified charcoal products
  • Integrating SWSA protection and management into government policy
  • Building capacity for local water governance platforms
  • Adoption of water stewardship practices in the agriculture and forestry sectors
  • Integrating sustainable financing into Water Source Partnership


What role has forestry and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to play in water stewardship in the future?

As one of the largest landowners in South Africa, forestry companies have an important role to manage freshwater ecosystems on their landholdings responsibly.   Apart from the good wetland delineation and restoration work that forestry companies are involved in, it is also important to manage any spread of alien invasive plants from their plantations into surrounding neighbouring lands.  FSC Standards support and uphold this via their Principles and Criteria and accredited independent verification process.


The theme for World Water Day is “Valuing Water: What does water mean to you?” (https://www.worldwaterday.org). As South Africans what are some of the issues we need to think about in pondering this question?

It is a good slogan as it reminds us that many people take water for granted. Water does not come from tap – it comes from a Water Source Area. South Africa is a water scarce country. Ask the people in Cape Town who experienced first-hand water scarcity and possibly value water more than people in other parts of the country. We need to support South Africans to develop a better understanding of where water comes from, by being more curious about it and not taking it for granted.   South Africa’s industrial hub Gauteng is located where it is because of its origins in mining, and is in fact at the headwaters of two important river catchments, not at the bottom of the catchment area where economic development would normally takes place. As a result, a lot of the water to service the province comes from Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal through a massive and complex inter-basin transfer system.  Water is pumped through pipes from Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal into tributaries of the Vaal system. The irony is that Johannesburg and surrounding cities were built there because of gold yet are now more dependent on water which is the new “white gold”.

In closing we all need to be more aware. Aware of how much water we as households and businesses use, aware of the scarcity of water and where it comes from and the role each of us can play to mitigate the risks of water scarcity. People need to begin to think “business unusual”. Think of Capetonians and how their views of water changed after the Day Zero scare, and how much more they valued water as Day Zero rapidly progressed. We need to get people to think differently and to value water and really value water.

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