From Molokolho* to Aller RiverProtecting our natural assets by taking back our rivers
Text Luci Coelho Photographs Various
“Our stories are powerful. If we see the world as dead, we will kill it. And if we see the world as live, we will learn how to serve its healing.”
The Aller River Joining the uMngeni River
“The Aller River begins life as a pretty pool in New Germany. Situated in a crescent of hills and surrounded by a “guard of honour” of Strelitzia and other indigenous tropical coastal plants, the stream once would have received its water from innumerable trickles running off the hillside. Today these tiny watercourses are built over with roads and houses, and all storm water runoff is channelled via a large storm water pipe into the gully wherein the pool lies.
Thereafter the small stream with mostly rocky stream bed is surrounded by beautiful indigenous bush inundated with invasive plants, a park of mown grass and erratic piles of illegally dumped garden waste. A causeway delineates where the park ends, and thereafter houses and gardens abut the stream which disappears in places under a mantle of invasive creepers. The banks increase in height and there are patches of indigenous bush interspersed with invasives.
Emerging from suburbia, we see that a sewerage pipeline runs along the bank of the river – the raised concrete manholes indicating the route of the underground pipe. The Aller then enters an industrial area where factories replace homes on the river banks, where the dumped ingredients comprise general waste and building rubble and there after the factories are in turn replaced by informal settlements. The stream is now descending, the banks becoming steeper and higher as the water gathers momentum and quantity. The steep banks become strewn with waste of all sorts, the stench rising in the humid heat whist the water is by now a murky grey.
The hillside comprises Clermont township, with a burgeoning informal settlement that has sprung up in the area between the river and the township houses. On the sandy soils of the river bank beside the informal settlement, waste alternates with small vegetable patches, outdoor “latrine” sites and the sewerage pipeline.
As we reach the New Germany Waste Water Treatment Works (WWTW) we find we have left urbanisation and are walking through an area of large indigenous trees shading natural bush – albeit dotted with invasive plants. This stretch of river is beginning a slightly steeper descent and there are areas that could be very pretty riffles and cascades, but the filthy water denies that. The water released from the WWTW is not clear – there seems to be a carry-over of solids – disinfected solids judging by the extremely strong smell of chlorine which is used to treat the water prior to release back into the river.
Now the Aller enters a rural area, and approximately 1.8 kilometres downstream of the WWTW the river water is clear again. The atmosphere, terrain and vegetation are now more of Valley Bushveld, as the Aller gives sustenance to subsistence farms and cascades over a rock ledge before spreading out over rocks worn smooth by aeons of water flow. The waters edges are black with small snails feeding on the strands of algae – an indicator of the increased nutrients, from sewage.
Not 400 metres downstream a sewer manhole is surcharging, pouring raw sewage into the Aller River and turning the clear water into a grey mess. Having thus far run in a general west to east west direction, the Aller now begins to run in a north-easterly direction, the river rapidly descending and the steep sides of the valley rising up a hundred metres above the river in places. The banks are clothed in thick Valley Bushveld species as the Aller cascades and rushes in tight bends downwards to the uMngeni River flowing for approximately six kilometres through a largely wild and untouched valley of interlocking spurs, where the cliffs echo with bird calls, and the only riparian impacts seem to be ten old causeways, six water pipes crossing the valley bottom, the ever present sewage manholes and a rough largely disused vehicle track running alongside the river.
Small isolated piles of plastic rubbish lie on the banks in places – testimony to the high floods that rush down the valley during summer rains that are exacerbated by all the urban storm water flows which find their way into the river. As the Aller bursts out of the valley, channelled in a small flood plain completely smothered in invasive Spanish Reeds, the water is finally clear. But one last surcharging manhole ensures that the Aller is once again completely grey and contaminated with sewage when the waters meet with the clear uMngeni River.“
River walker, 6th November 2015
Surcharging Manhole discharging sewerage into the Aller River
A global issue, local impact
The above description from experienced “river walker” Penny Rees highlights the enormous challenges we face at a local level to restore our rivers – the Aller is but one of many rivers in desperately poor condition in eThekwini.
Threatened water sources, however, are not only a South African problem. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), water scarcity is currently the number one risk in the world, and this is reflected strongly in the list of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
What happened in Cape Town in 2018 brought home what it means to be water scarce. Before this, water scarcity was a small cry coming mainly from conservationists and some government officials. Most people do not really understand the true value of water, including where it really comes from.
Most people think of water as coming out of taps. As ordinary people begin to experience the impacts of a changed climate, so more and more people are beginning to ask the right questions and take the right actions. This is critical for the future of humanity on earth.
The UN Sustainable Development Goals
In South Africa, all communities, but especially the less-resilient, poor, urban communities in Durban and elsewhere, face increasing threats and risks from climate change (mainly floods and droughts), water scarcity, and polluted and degraded environments, including plastic waste entering the environment and oceans. In eThekwini we have experienced graphically and tragically the reality of this twice in 2019 during April and November. We have seen flood conditions that have left over 70 people dead (all from less-resilient, poor, urban communities), water and sewer infrastructure ravaged, and massive swathes of river-borne plastic pollution that covered the beaches and were largely swept into the ocean.
Where people live in numbers, close to and in our urban areas, rivers are the nexus where environmental pollution, faulty infrastructure impacts, and biodiversity loss meet. They are both conveyors of plastic waste to the oceans, as well as important providers of ecosystem services, water security, biodiversity, food security, and public amenity and recreation.
The Aller River Pilot Project (ARPP) is an example of a global issue being tackled at a local level. Along with at least eight other community-based projects around South Africa, the ARPP is working on one river in a small geo-social space to explore what methodologies can be forged on the catchment-face to contribute to this urgent and critical struggle to thwart an imminent and terrifying water crisis.
Through the Aller River Pilot Project (ARPP), the eThekwini Conservancies Forum (ECF), has been piloting innovative solutions at the local level, aimed at nudging and empowering communities to participate in sharing responsibility and caring for their rivers and streams.
Throughout all the phases of this small project, in one small area, the ARPP has proved that almost all people want to live in a clean and beautiful area, and will do their part in contributing to this aim if they are supported in ways that respect their choices and their circumstances.
Why did we start the Aller River Pilot Project in the first place?
In 2015, the eThekwini Conservancies’ Forum (ECF) was reviewing how to increase the impact of its work, resulting in a few important realisations:
- All our different biomes in especially peri-urban and urban areas were being degraded faster than eThekwini Parks Department could be expected to manage.
- Volunteer conservancies have no choice but to rise up more actively to support the protection of our rapidly diminishing natural assets.
- Climate change is real, and the impacts are becoming increasingly evident and frightening as the years pass.
- Water scarcity is a terrifying reality, and if we do not protect our water sources, we are done for in ways that are too ugly for the imagining.
- We also need to actively protect our green lungs in whatever way possible.
- As a society, we all share these environmental threats: We will all be impacted. We must all put our shoulders to the wheel.
Based on these realisations, the ECF conceptualised a Take Back programme, consisting of three main elements: Take Back Our Rivers, Take Back Our Grasslands, and Take Back Our Reserves. We began with the first one and conceived of the Aller River Pilot Project as the launching point.
Where is the Aller River Pilot Project?
Map of the Aller River and Project area
The Aller River is a tributary of the uMngeni River and flows from new Germany through Clermont, meeting the uMngeni near Reservoir Hills on its way to the ocean. It is approximately 13km long. This river was selected because it flows through various socio-economic and environmental terrains, giving us the opportunity to test various contexts in which to build co-responsibility in transformative riverine management.
The project set a vision and designed a process that was fundamentally practical: the emphasis is on aiming for the vision (i.e. a healthy and functional Aller River) through actions that address four aspects defined as being necessary to achieve the vision:
- Bio-physical Rehabilitation (leading to functional ecological infrastructure);
- Changed behaviours and social norms (specifically in support of cleaning and caring for waterways and catchments);
- Supporting effective governance and service delivery in relevant mandated municipal functions; and
- Adaptive learning through ongoing piloting and reflection supported by research by an independent research institution, namely UKZN.
The project was managed and administered by the Kloof Conservancy which volunteered resources over the four-year lifespan of the project.
What is the Aller River Pilot Project?
Aller River Pilot Project – illustrative process diagram
In November 2015 a small team of “river walkers” lead by Penny Rees from DUCT walked the length of Aller River on behalf of the ECF to determine its condition.
This was followed in 2016 with the start of the ARPP and the establishment of a team of eco-champs who stepped up in the Clermont-New Germany area of eThekwini to carry out this important environmental work.
This team were trained and then took their knowledge into the community where they shared information, monitored and cleaned the Aller River, assisted the municipality by reporting illegal dumping, sewer surcharges and water leaks, all the while engaging local communities to research behaviour, public attitudes, reasons for river contamination, and harvesting ideas for river rehabilitation from those most affected.
In its fourth phase in 2018-2019, the ARPP piloted a powerful Absorbent Hygiene Product (mainly disposable nappies and sanitary pads) safe collection methodology. In just three months approximately 21,000 (3,5 tons) of used disposable nappies and sanitary pads were diverted from rivers and catchments to safe disposal in managed landfills, using a very simple solution co-created with the users of these AHPs.
Diagram from Eco-champ team in training
What did we actually do?
The cornerstone of the approach that guided the ARPP was engaging local “river communities” and the mandated custodians of our common spaces in support of changing behaviours that would result in a clean and functional river catchment. To do this we developed a cohort of change agents made up of six trained local eco-champs under the leadership of a local community liaison officer. This team tirelessly and in multiple ways engaged the communities of mainly Clermont to re-imagine the highly degraded Molokolho River (place of dumping) as a beautiful clean and useful Aller River.
For four years this team worked closely with the eThekwini Municipality departments of Solid Waste, Water & Sanitation and Environmental Health, monitoring the state of the river and reporting sewer spills, illegal solid and liquid dumping events, water pipe leaks and engaging communities in targeted educational clean-up events. They engaged the community door-to-door, at clinics, pension pay-out points, and churches, in schools and crèches, and they organised large environmentally-themed public events to carry out the message of caring for our spaces, caring for our waterways. They cleaned the river catchment of alien invasive species and rehabilitated the areas with indigenous plant material.
In the last phase of the project in 2019-20, the team piloted a highly effective safe AHP collection process that they designed with the community of Ndundumo, and which the municipality is planning to roll out across the whole of eThekwini exactly because it was so simple and so successful.
Eco-champ team with mentors. From Left: Bukisani Msomi, Silindile Sithole, Nokhutula Mkizee, Dr Elsa Lee (Cambridge University) Silindile Bhengu, Thandeka Dube, Thembinkosi Gwala, Pandora Long (DUCT)
Eco-champ team working on a key-hole garden. From left: Thandeka Dube, Nokuthula Mkhize, Bukisani Msomi, Thembinkosi Gwala, Silindile Sithole, Silindile Bhengu
What were the methodologies used?
Over the course of four years the project has utilised a variety of techniques and methodologies to achieve its desired goals. Often the course had to be modified as the team learnt and adapted to local feedback and circumstances. The entire process was underpinned by a comprehensive Theory of Change exercise to map a vision and methodology and this was then translated into actions which utilised techniques such as Focus Groups, door-to-door research, community events, Eco-clubs at schools and community interactions and facilitation through local community structures such as the “War Room”.
The Eco-champs received extensive training throughout the project both formal (NQF training through WESSA) and informal coaching by highly experienced mentors. The initial mentoring was done by Pandora Long from DUCT who was part of a team that developed the concept of “Enviro-champs” in the KZN Midlands. This was followed up in Phase 2 by Dr Elsa Lee, a researcher from the University of Cambridge, who honed the research skills of the team. On all phases the Eco-champs were guided by experienced Project Managers, Nick Swan (Phase 1 and 2) and Luci Coelho (Phase 3 and 4).
Whilst all the techniques had good outcomes, two in particular stand out as innovative applications of global solutions at a local level. These were the participatory video social change engagement tool, and the Absorbent Hygiene Product (AHP) collection programme.
The team was introduced to the Participatory Video methodology under the guidance of Neville Meyer of InsightShare. Today producing relatively complex videos has been made simple by easily accessible hardware and software. The team engaged with the community and produced videos which enabled an intriguing and non-threatening engagement, sparking surprisingly open discussions. The process helps to empower communities as they describe problems and discuss possible solutions which they themselves can implement. Hearing themselves and their neighbours discussing issues builds a powerful experience of being heard, the very first step towards co-responsibility in any situation. The videos also provide a channel of communication to other role players, decision-makers and authorities which would not otherwise be easily reached.
The ARPP team developed a highly effective solution to the “disposable nappies” problem using a methodology which draws heavily from the Nudge Theory**. This theory basically makes the point that behaviour change is more likely to succeed when people choose to change their behaviour by making choices based on options that attract them. This stands in contrast to the view that says people will change if they are instructed accordingly and if there are regulations based on the authority of some external agent. The methodology also challenges the notion that once people are “informed” and made aware of a good idea they will realise the value of the good idea and will change their behaviour because it is the right thing to do. The project team firmly believes that the “Nudge methodology” underpinned the success of ARPP3 and 4.
Thozeka Lethuka (Community Liaison Officer) and Thandeka Dube (Eco-champ) coming to grips with technology for participatory video
Thozeka Lethuka leading a Focus Group discussion on disposable nappies
Who did we involve?
Fundamental to the four focus areas and the founding tenet of facilitating behaviour change for sustainability is continuous and comprehensive stakeholder engagement and partnership development. This implies that stakeholders in the target site are identified at the outset, and include civil society (local communities, community-based organisations), the private sector (local businesses) and relevant government departments, mostly at a local level but also at a provincial and national level where appropriate.
- The community engagement was carried out by eco-champs and the community liaison officer.
- The community liaison officer maintained a strong relationship with community leaders in ward committees, in schools and in municipal departments.
- The project manager and steering committee members managed relationships with senior municipal management in the various departments and other relevant stakeholders including other similar projects and funders.
Community festival poster
Actors from the education division of the Water and Sanitation Department in a role play on the importance of water
Where did the funds come from?
The project was part volunteer and part paid for. From the start, we agreed that the valuable ecosystems services that the eco-champ team were providing were measurable and should therefore be paid for. The costs of building the eco-champs into an effective trained team took considerable resources as did the HR costs for the team as a whole. There were numerous other costs for communication, transport, community events and equipment that required significant resources. The Kloof Conservancy donated critical programme and financial management capacity, saving the project at least a third of its costs. The sourcing of funds for the different phases was certainly the most difficult task of the ARPP. We managed to get from year to year through the kind support of various funders, each of which had their own vested interest in the project, guiding the activities of the different phases. The different phases were funded as follows:
- Phase 1: the eThekwini Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department.
- Phase 2: the Government of the United Kingdom through Cambridge University.
- Phase 3: the National Lotteries Commission
- Phase 4: EDANA (international industry association for AHPs)
Edana representatives discuss the project with the Eco-champs. From left. Dr Ioannis Hatzopoulis, Gil Stevens, Nokuthulla Mkhize, Silindile Sithole, Silindile Bhengu
What did we achieve?
It is very hard to really measure the impact of environmental work with people, especially because it is by definition ongoing work without end. In urban areas where the population is often transient, one can never hope to bring awareness to everyone as there are always new people who need to be engaged. Having said that, the eco-champ team are well known and respected in their community, with people stopping them daily – even now when the project is essentially dormant – to report on sewer manhole spills, illegal dumping or to ask them how to get more black rubbish bags or just to thank them for helping clean up the area.***
For the duration of the various phases, the Aller River definitely improved in condition, although this can change in a day because of a significant pollution event upstream. There are hundreds of children who have heard the message about the local impacts of Climate Change, and how this affects rivers and water availability, and the quality of living spaces. Hundreds more community members are managing their solid waste more effectively. Thousands of nappies are being disposed of properly so that they do not block sewers and jam waterways and open spaces.
The ARPP is well known around the country. The team received no less than four national accolades awarded by various agencies and one video in particular (ARPP3 Nappies Film Promo) has been used extensively at numerous conferences locally and internationally.
The Eco-champ Team with the Mail & Guardian Greening the Future Award. From left: Silindile Sithole, Nokuthula Mkhize, Nick Swan (Project Manager) Thandeka Dube, Thozeka Lethuka (Community Liaison Officer) and Bukisani Msomi
Eco-logic Awards from left: Silindile Bhengu (Eco-champ), Minister Barbara Creecy, Nana Zungu (DSW) and Thembelihle Mazibuko (DSW)
Nokuthula Mkhize and Luci Coelho (Project Manager) receiving an award at Waste Khoro
The Stomp Award
Probably the greatest success of the ARPP is that it has proved that the effort invested in working towards behaviour change at a local level is undoubtedly worthwhile. The fact that the work of the project has informed several other projects inside and beyond eThekwini municipality is encouraging, and the fact that the municipality has adopted some of the practices of the project is reward enough for the ECF and ARPP teams.
Disposable nappies poster
The funding cycle for Phase 4 of the ARPP ended in March 2020, which aligned exactly with the Covid-19 lockdown. This meant that the ARPP Team were pretty much stopped in their tracks. The ECF has since Phase 3 prepared and submitted at least six funding proposals, none of which has yet born fruit. We will continue to try and find resources because we know the work is of immense value.
In the meantime, we have had a firm commitment from eThekwini Municipality that they will extend the “nappies” project to other areas in the city in a phased manner. In addition, negotiations are taking place to assess the viability of a recycling plant for AHPs. Both these initiatives will make a significant impact on improving the environment in eThekwini.
The Aller River on a good day!
Loosely translated from isiZulu to mean –“the place where you dump things”.
Although this is not the original text, it is a simple and accurate summary of the theory, with useful applications and a toolkit.
One of our favourite anecdotes is about the informal goat farmer who trekked to the eco-champ office to thank them because his goats were no longer getting sick from eating fetid rotting used nappies lying in the open spaces.
Phase 4 Project Report cover
One of the skills that the eco-champ team learned was how to make educational videos to carry their message, and to inspire behaviour change. These can be accessed at the following YouTube links:
- Aller River Rehabilitation Project Introduction
December 2016 – 8 minutes
- Aller River Rehabilitation Project Phase 1
May 2017 – 14 minutes
- Aller River Pilot Project Phase 1 Summary
March 2018 – 7 minutes
- ARPP3 Nappies Film Promo
Feb 2019 – 7 minutes
- STOMP ARPP Story of Change
Jul 2020 – 2 minutes
- Video on river projects in Durban
Produced by LIRA – 27 minutes (Leading Integrated Research for Agenda 2030 – a project of the International Science Council)
This video shows how the LIRA project partners with other local initiatives to improve river management in a collaborative manner in Durban, South Africa. It shares inspiring examples of real local efforts that aim to advance sustainable urban development. The documentary was selected to be aired at the Better Cities Film Festival in October 2020 and was used in the opening of the Durban Climate Action Plan launch in September 2020.
About the author
Luci Coelho is part of the ECF Team by virtue of being a member of the Hillcrest Conservancy. She is a committed believer that all people everywhere should, in some way or another, contribute to the wellbeing of their local communities, including our earth home and our living creatures. She does not really distinguish between species. Environmental justice activism is how Luci has chosen to express her local contribution. In her life Luci has been a teacher of various kinds, a researcher, and a development practitioner, changing the focus areas as new imperatives appear on her path. Currently she is working in the water security space.