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Unexpected Life in the Khayelitsha Wetlands

The Khayelitsha Wetlands Park in Makhaza defies expectations in many ways. For some Capetonians, its mere existence may come as a surprise – Khayelitsha is perceived as a sprawling urban ghetto, overcrowded and under-serviced, with little remaining connection to the underlying natural ecosystems of the area.  This was certainly my perception until recently. It was therefore humbling and inspiring to learn that there are still pockets of ‘living’ ecosystems in Khayelitsha, and that there is a lot of hard work being undertaken by communities living near the wetlands to protect this precious resource.

According to recent specialist reports, the Khayelitsha Wetlands Park is a critical biodiversity area of conservation worthy status – meaning that, despite the huge pressures and threats to the wetland, it is still a functional ecosystem, supporting many plant and animal species, and carrying out the important roles of flood attenuation and water cleansing that wetlands are famous for. But the people living alongside these wetlands didn’t need the specialist reports to tell them this. There are many groups of people who use the wetland, for collecting medicinal plants, for ritual washing before traditional ceremonies, as a source of drinking water for livestock, for swimming, and even as a hunting ground.

The ongoing cultural and recreational use of the wetland is risky, because these waters are severely polluted. One of the main sources of pollution of the Kuils River, which flows into the Khayelitsha wetlands, is the Bellville wastewater treatment works, which releases inadequately treated wastewater into the river. Within Khayelitsha, problems relating to a lack of services and poor infrastructure leads to further polluting of the river and wetlands. People dump uncollected household waste in the wetlands, and wastewater from informal settlements such as Silvertown, which are not connected to the main municipal grid, runs directly into the wetlands.  For some residents of Khayelitsha, the wetlands are seen as a problem – they are a place for criminals to hide, they are a source of dangerously dirty water, and they take up space which could otherwise be used for housing.

Now, these risks and perceptions are being confronted by a group of dedicated community members, who are working as part of a multi-stakeholder platform in partnership with CEJ (Coalition for Environmental Justice), EMG (Environmental Monitoring Group), the City Parks department, the DWA Adopt-a-River Programme, CPUT (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) and others, to strategise around protecting and enhancing the life connected to the Khayelitsha wetlands. So far, this group has organized clean-ups, awareness raising workshops in communities and schools, a week-long programme of activities during World Wetlands Week in February, action research into pollution and solutions, and ongoing opportunities for engagement between communities and local authorities.

This process is an important example of urban adaptation to climate change. There are the obvious benefits of rehabilitating and protecting wetlands, for their biodiversity value, their role in cleaning water – which will be critical as higher temperatures under climate change will allow bacteria to flourish in freshwater systems – and buffering the effects of droughts and floods. There are also the less obvious, but equally important benefits of capacity and confidence building of people, to take action and responsibility for natural resources where they live. Along with this, relationships and channels of communication are opening up between local people and various spheres of government. These are critical aspects of resilience to climate change in an urban setting.

There are exciting things happening around the Khayelitsha wetlands – watch this space! If you would like to get involved in this, or other initiatives relating to climate change and water in your area, visit www.emg.org.za for more information and tips for action.

Taryn Pereira – Environmental Monitoring Group.

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One response to “Unexpected Life in the Khayelitsha Wetlands

  1. Pingback: World Wetlands Day |

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