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Kaalfontein wetland crisis: Saving the fountain-eyes to revive the Rivers

By Willem Snyman,

Mandela month cleanup with DWS at Kaalfontein, (ward 92), Tembisa, 26th of July

The fountain-heads of the Witwatersrand, Hennops spring-water sources - our natural wonders are being destroyed

Pollution problems: massive amounts of solid waste, plastic rubbish dumped on the banks, raw-sewerage mains over-flowing into the stream. Illegal invasion, most of the lower half of the Wetland already destroyed, leveled in a year with thousands of tons of building rubble, thousands of people now live dangerously inside this wetland flood-line, all of their waste going into the stream.

A communal cleanup to start a Wetland Park

In the morning the solid waste problems looked overwhelming, yet with everyone helping together, what looked like a dump site was transformed into a place of hope and renewal. Together with the DWS and community members, volunteers cleaned a large area - a hundred bags full of rubbish was removed, mostly plastics picked up from the banks. Twenty indigenous trees were planted in this area to create a park on the side side of the wetland, even the birds could hardly wait to welcome their new perches. Residents who helped decided to name it the Ubuhle Freshwater Park, which means neat and tidy; they have also requested a sign board for this, prohibiting dumping. They would also like to have a smaller children's park set up in an area slightly higher up, which they already fenced with a gate, to prevent this area from being invaded.

The greening of Kaalfontein

This area is a gateway park to the larger Wetland, and in a tranquil higher part of it, next to a large spring-water pan - one of the clear and strong fountain-eyes of the Hennops, with still impressive bird life. Situated quite high up in the wetland, near the source, where the waters are still relatively clean - just above where the sewerage leaks start.

Not far from here illegal dumping and building is going on, a dense informal settlement has now sprung up in with what used to be a wetland last year. A border must be defined to try and protect what is left and stop the illegal dumping approaching fast, buildings on the sides are also continually encroaching into this wetland - Kaalfontein is expanding inwards instead of outwards. Some of these illegal developers and dwellers are determined to fill up and build onto the rest of this valuable wetland.

If being put to good use by the community it won't be grabbed for individual use and private dwellings. This green area belongs to all the people living around it, to the River and the people living downstream, all depending on clean water. The precious source areas of the perennial Hennops, and by extension of the Crocodile and Limpopo Rivers are being polluted and destroyed. massive pollution has been ongoing for many years now, mostly from malfunctioning Wwtws.

Kaalfontein wetland freshwater sanctuary

A green area to protect the important fountain sources of the Witwatersrand, and the spring-water streams that they form. Kaalfontein is blessed with numerous strong fountains, that converge to form a large central wetland. Fountain-water streams flow as green corridors through densely populated areas, when cleaned up this wetland can enhance many lives. The idea is to have numerous smaller, natural parks, on the sides of the wetland. We already secured one at the top of this wetland during a recent four day campaign there in June, cleaning-up, planting 30 trees and building a round bench. A walking trail was started that can be made to encircle the borders of the whole Kaalfontein wetland and join all of these local parks together. They can all have healthy food stalls, with eating and sitting areas under the trees, information centers and small markets - clean and safe green areas. These can be connected to a large, central fresh-produce market, where people can buy healthy fresh food, sold directly by small-farmers, without plastics, chemicals or preservatives - there is already a central site available for this market.

Educating at surrounding schools

On the morning of the cleanup our educators managed to give talks at both the Sedi-laka primary and the Oracle Secondary schools, wed still like to reach out to all five of the surrounding schools to start making kids aware of the vital importance of their freshwater nature. Sadly one often sees toddlers sent out with bags to dispose of the family trash, and throwing it directly into the streams, this is unnatural, incorrect and harmful behavior being taught. At the Oracle school there are already growing tunnels unused for years, these can be put to use again to teach proper growing techniques and to produce heathy food for the kids and the community. The recycling bins at the school are also unused and uncollected, and can be used to teach proper waste management.

Consequences of pollution

These magical streams are un-appreciated and have become shamefully polluted - filled with raw sewerage and used as disposal sites for household rubbish. Most of the trash being dumped on their banks lies uncollected for months, posing a severe health hazards to residents, decomposing with huge rats scurrying around them. Only to be swept downriver in floods, forming a large part of the huge plastic pollution that is now spread out in the nature along the hundred kilometer length of the Hennops River, entangled and hanging in trees, virtually impossible to remove. Floating plastic forms part of the massive Polystyrene and plastic islands poisoning the river lower down with endocrine disrupters. Raw sewerage toxins in the drinking and agricultural waters used by millions of people downstream to the sea.

Partnering with the DWS

The Department of Water and Sanitation and now also of human settlement, appears to have gained new life. It was impressive to partner with them and experience their level of involvement; we were joined by numerous officials mostly from the national office who all worked vigorously to clean the rubbish. It feels as if we have started new era with their newly appointed Minister, there is a renewed enthusiasm and a willingness to tackle water pollution hands-on, to take polluters to task and find solutions to our seemingly insurmountable River problems. It seems that even the important Blue and Green drop certification is coming back, and we also hope that the Blue Scorpions will return, this time with big claws.

Solid waste and public dumping problems

Paradoxically the huge waste problems stem from very tidy habits around the house, a combination of an unwillingness to keep trash in the home along with infrequent pickups causes rubbish to be dumped in public places, next to streams and bridges. For people living on the banks, the streams are handy and often their only disposal places - an open waterborne system, flushed clean with the rains. No thought is given to where the rubbish ends up, most people don't even regard them as fountain-streams, but as sewerage ditches, an often heard idea is to enclose them up in pipes. For those living illegally on the streams, without services, it is the main thing keeping them healthy - all the household waste of thousands of people as well as their sewerage, either in buckets or seen in the illegal toilet pipes going straight into the stream.

Sewerage leaks

Large volumes of raw-sewerage flows down these streams to turn them into brown health hazards where the children still play. Johannesburg has made great strides towards stopping leaks, unblocking pipes and laying new sewerage mains, yet blockages persist, often at the same places they keep overflowing. During the walk five large overflowing sewerage mains were identified and many others seen in houses, one flooding a whole backyard. Where recurring sewerage leaks are, people will tend to dump their rubbish in these already dirty places - perhaps clean water in the streams will also mitigate the dumping of rubbish.

Wetland grab

Walking fifty meters down from the cleanup area, the wetland ends abruptly and becomes a dense informal settlement, all built in the last year without planning, thousands now live dangerously inside the stream course. Much of the lower half of this large wetland has now been invaded and settled on, newly built shacks and even brick houses are being built right on the stream. In a cleanup campaign here the previous year, most was still natural as we still tried to start the park which had been planned for there. Huge amounts of building rubble has since been illegally dumped by commercial trucks diverted here, to level the banks. Now thousands are living right inside this flood-line, at risk on un-compacted rubble, with no plants for flood attenuation, storm waters could collapse these rubbish piles onto the unsuspecting residents. These stands were often bought from unscrupulous self-styled 'developers' who directed the trucks in to level the wetland and even sold ready to assemble shacks. There is still a great housing need and the area is expanding rapidly, but this is not a solution, many are attracted here simply to live rent free, taking over areas that belong to the whole community.

Consumerism and throw away society

While we were cleaning up the stream banks many walked past to the opening of the new shopping mall across the bridge, oblivious to the connection of their buying habits and all the pollution. Wasteful habits should be moved away from, for the sake of our own survival and of the struggling planet. The exploitation of people with highly processed, fattening, and addictive sugary foods, mostly unhealthy. Most things in these shops are over-packaged with plastic, for which no proper provision for their disposal is made, most of it not recycled and either end up in a land fill or along the rivers - used for a minute, taking hundreds of years to degrade. Manufacturers must take responsibility for what they make and sell, people are being trapped by processed foods lacking proper nutrition, indoctrinated to believe that they need animal products, unhealthy for our bodies, as we cannot properly digest them, and are highly destructive to the planet. People are being enslaved by consumerism and enriching large food conglomerates who benefit from the destruction of our nature. Wealth and means of survival should be returned to the people and spread out through small businesses, to save on healthcare and live happier lives.

A much better alternative to the Mall, and as a natural balance, would be to have a proper large Fresh-produce market where people can buy good, healthy foods with little packaging, where small farmers can sell their organic goods directly to the public at reasonable prices, to create many jobs and spread the wealth back the people, while helping the Earth to survive. There is already a central site that can be used for such a market area.

Finding solutions

  • Education, long term this is still the key to changing behavior and fostering good habits, the kids up here seem unaware of the pollution problems endangering their environment and our planet. This wetland is surrounded by many schools and can become an open-air classroom, an amazing place of practical teaching, for the understanding of nature's most productive eco-systems, and a healthy outdoor place to play and explore around clean spring-water streams.

  • Pipe blockages can also be minimized through education and respect of the system - not to flush waste like plastic and disposable nappies, the scourge of our rivers. Faster reporting and unblocking, instead of overflowing for months while posing a big health risk. Sections where regular leaks occur must be repaired properly, these places also attract dumping, with huge mounds of rubbish around them.

  • Solid waste, piles of rubbish deposited next to bridges and streams, is mostly not collected by Pickit-up, yet authorities don't want to put skips there as they pose crime problems. Perhaps decorative wire mesh sculptures can be made at bridges where waste can be deposited in a fun way. Regular trash collection is essential, more bins are needed at every house-hold, people without bins are scared to keep trash inside and dump it outside. More efficient recycling and separation at source must be implemented soon.

  • Land-fills with crushers, to prevent building rubble being dumped all over the place, easier access to disposal sites should be made. Concrete crushers used, that can turn building rubble back into usable building sand, and prevent sites from filling up quickly. Johannesburg apparently owns two such expensive crushers which are standing unused - they must be brought into operation.

  • Sand mining, parts of the stream banks have been dug out like warrens in commercial operations where river-sand is being sold and loaded on trucks, this further encourages erosion and should be stopped.

  • Small scale farming, lower down along the Kaalsruit, there is much land next to the stream currently being farmed, vast mealie fields farmed by only a few people, mostly inefficiently with much going to waste, hundreds of thousands of pumpkins lie there uneaten. With clean water and proper methods, small scale organic and perma-culture farming practices can provide a livelihood for many, more can be produced on less land. Riparian areas can be properly managed and their vegetation restored, the fragile soil now lies exposed by poor farming techniques and is very prone to being washed away.

  • Erosion and restoring the flood plane, the area of the Kaalspruit above the Olifansfontein Wwtw is deeply eroded, almost two story's deep. The longstanding cause of the problem is an unused and incorrectly built bridge that has forced the flood water into a narrow chanel, instead of being spread over a wide area. The sides of the bridge can be opened up and the steep gradient of the banks lessened so that the water can spread out over the whole area when flooding, this area can be restored as rich farmland. A litter trap can be installed at this bridge to further slow and spread the water out, as well as providing recy cling opportunities with the plastic.

  • Walking trails around the edge of the wetland can protect the sides from being invaded, and provide a healthy attraction, it can attract visitors and tourists.

  • Indigenous micro-organisms can be used to clear the pipes, digest the sludge and restore wetland and freshwater stream life, breaking down toxicity and built-up sludge so that the natural ecosystems can be restored, these will filter the water and protect the banks.

  • Natural parks, once the water is clean and filled with life it will uplift the lives of all and improve their health, making safe play areas for kids and for adults to relax in tranquil areas next to clear streams.

  • Job creation, this large natural wetland when restored to vibrant life can create sustainable employment in many fields, like the restoration and upkeep of the parks, at the markets and stalls, it could become an attraction for tourism, with lodges and guides; wetland plants and reeds could be sustainably used, and it can become the Central Park of Kaalfontein and surround areas.

Healthy spring-water brings new life

When these streams and their banks are all restored it will enhance the whole community and uplift the people naturally - clean healing spring-water free to everyone, flowing through in living, natural streams. The realization of the great value of clean water to us all, its use and appreciation will also discourage further dumping and free up amazing park areas to improve the health and happiness of all living here, while saving huge amounts of freshwater so that all life downstream can flourish.

Thanks to all who helped Willem Snyman,

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