Friday, August 7, 2009

The island of conservation in Africa

I just had a really exciting conversation with IUCN about conservation. They asked me what I thought the greatest challenges facing our continent were and whilst I managed a few off the cuff responses, sometimes great ideas need a little time to percolate, a bit like good coffee.

So my answer IUCN is as follows:

Transfrontier Conservation Areas!

This is not a new concept. We've had experts mapping areas of ecological importance and linking of biodiversity corridors for more than a decade. The potential to conserve and protect Africa's precious wildlife resources are possible and available, but the foundation of TFCA's or peace parks rely on cross-border co-operation between different governments to acknowledge the importance of collectively conserved land and to commit to preserving it.

Nature does not obey political boundaries. The ancient migration routes of herd animals continue despite borders and fences with increasing casualty and conflict, yet despite ecotourism proving its economic worth, the borders persist.

In artificially managed ecosystems that exist behind fences, limited access to resources such as grazing and water and the emergence of stagnant gene pools can be addressed through increased conserved territory. Not to mention the threat of fire or homogenisation of vegetation as a result of these artificial forces.

When I read about how rhinos are being poached on the Kruger fence line, I feel angry over the lack of comment from stakeholders like Peace Parks. Instead of continuing with community stakeholder engagement on the Mozambique side of the park to encourage the community towards conservation, SanParks is spending R2 million rand on employing more patrols.

Critics will say that the dream of Kruger - Ghaza - Ghonerazou failed because Zimbabwe pulled out and all the elephants that were relocated to Mozambique came back. But little effort has been made to engage the communities in Mozambique and show them how ecotourism can help them feed their families over poaching. Consider for a moment why the Great Migration across the Serengeti and the Masai Mara is the most successful drawcard for ecotourism - because it is given space to exist!

Returning to the question of the impending Kruger peace park, the 100 metres of fence line dropped for the unveiling press conference ( 10 years ago) has yet to widen and remains nothing more than a hollow gesture.

Our biggest challenge is the lack of communication to local communities living along the hemlines of national parks that their livelihoods can be improved as a result of conservation. The creation of peace parks should not be seen as competition to food security, as these areas have already been identified and in many cases are established conservation areas that generally enjoy some level of protection as conserved land, but what has happened in the last ten years to drop fences and deliver results has been precious little.

I seem to recall Peace Parks Foundation being set up with this specific mandate and also to have received considerable funding to execute this.

So IUCN, my answer is we need to re-engage governments that gave their commitment to the vision of TFCA's and challenge the NGO's who have already been bankrolled to get the programme moving. There is no need to spend additional resources re-inventing the wheel when enough studies, road maps, policies and frameworks have been done to set us on a sustainable path. Can we just get on with rolling up our sleeves, already?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Water crisis in KwaZulu Natal

I just got back from a field trip where I explored several rural communities that currently do not have access to clean drinking water.

Situated on the hemline of a collection of conserved land such as Phinda Private Game Reserve, Mkuze Game Reserve and the IsiManguliso ( St Lucia) Wetland - now a World Heritage Site, I visited, Makhasa, Mnqobokasi, Kwajobe and Kwangwenya. The first two villages have very recently been hooked up to the Hluhluwe Dam delivery scheme, but the latter two rely on rivers and rain tanks assembled under their roof gutters for water.

If you were an environmental purest - you could argue that their rain harvesting techniques are the most sustainable solution for a continent that is constantly battling water shortages, but as weather patterns change, the rainfall in this area has proved increasingly elusive and drought cycles have increased.

Much of the positive development that has been initiated in these communities is through the support of &Beyond Foundation - that works closely with Phinda Private Reserve. What I love about their development model is that it is community-led, rather than donor dictated and so has spawned real grassroots success by empowering the local leadership.

On assignment for Water For All, I was tasked with finding 5 rural schools in the province that currently do not have access to clean drinking water. This NGO works in several countries across Southern and East Africa and is making a real difference in helping to reduce the number of deaths that occur daily as a result of water borne disease.

Water For All, target mainly schools as beneficiaries, as children are traditionally tasked with collecting water from far away sources - often preventing them from attending school. Water in schools, therefore has a multiple, positive impact in addressing health, education and children rights issues.

In addition, Water For All's new direction embraces renewable technology options that generate no carbon emissions and have no running cost implications to the school or community. The NGO also provides free maintenance of the pump. In short - I'm a huge fan of Water For All, but what concerned me about this last trip were the number of collapsed boreholes in the area that could suggest a serious depletion of ground water.

Ground water quality and quantity can be very area-specific. Drilling for water does not always yield positive results and what I have experienced in recent years is that South Africa's ground water resources are under severe pressure.

Apparently there are all sorts of sophisticated studies that have been commissioned to map all the boreholes across the country and register their abstraction rates. The agricultural industry is responsible for 50% of the country's water resources through irrigation, but this figure is over 5 years old and as the new democratic government has increasingly supplied more of its previously disadvantaged citizens with access to water, either in their residential communities or as emerging farmers, the numbers must have changed.

Before I left for my trip I contacted the regional offices for both the Department of Education and the Department of Water Affairs. Neither could tell me with any kind of certainty which schools used boreholes and how much.

Seems to be yet another case of an a very expensive study sitting in someone's bottom drawer - unread.