Walking for water

2012-03-07 00:00

SITTING at her home office, a wooden table on the veranda under a prolific canopy of grapevines, Penny Rees furiously sends off a batch of e-mails. The dog at her feet lazily scratches and Rees manoeuvres her laptop to get a good Internet signal.

This is the life. Her office on the outdoor veranda is weather dependent, but she says, shrugging: “Beats air- conditioning and commuting.” Her love of nature is apparent in her home as nature’s artifacts adorn walls and corners. But her current mission as Howick secretary for Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (Duct) is water and, together with a group of five other environmental warriors, she will be walking along the length of the Umgeni River to highlight the importance of the midlands’ most precious natural water resource and educate people about saving this precious commodity.

The 265-kilometre Umgeni source to Sea Walk will take four weeks to complete and will start in May. They will travel along the river as far as possible and when they are not able, they will keep the river in sight. The trip is from the source in the Dargle to the Blue Lagoon estuary.

The six-person team of Rees, Penelope Malinga, Preven Chetty, Pandora Young, Muvo Ngcobo and Mike Farley has multiple goals, and Rees (team leader), who has had the idea brewing in the back of her mind for a few years hopes it will have a positive spin-off for years to come.

They will have to walk at least 10 kilometres a day and they are hoping to stay in farm accommodation or rural villages along the way. They will be taking notes and photographs to record their findings, and will be recording footage for a documentary.

The team will be followed by a support vehicle that will carry equipment and food supplies and camping equipment if necessary. While most of the logistics have been finalised they are hoping for more sponsors to come on board.

“The Umgeni River is the most important in the water system. There are other tributaries which flow into the Umgeni but it is the main one and it supplies most of the water to the towns from Howick south to Durban,” she said.

Rees hopes to observe the overall health of the river, noting plant life and also taking note of alien and invasive species. One of their big concerns is pollution hotspots caused by factories or communities living along the river.

“We honestly don’t have a clue on how to be water wise and how to manage our water resources. We will wake up too late and then what?”

The Umgeni River water gets treated at certain points by different water works where the water is cleaned, purified and then pumped back into the river. But these water works are not always working at an optimal level, especially after heavy storms.

Rees says that the source of the Umgeni begins at Fort Nottingham in a wetland situated on a plateau. Wetlands are vital because the vegetation growing in them filters many impurities from the water.

The river then descends into a gorge and in this the water is crystal clear. “When we started planning the trip we went to have a look and took photographs,” says Rees. “The water is clear and you can see right through it to the bottom of the river bed. This water is totally uncontaminated and you would be able to drink it. Sadly, this is what the whole river should look like.”

A few kilometres further, the river travels along through indigenous forest and on one side is the Dargle. While descriptions of the route sound idyllic, Rees confessed that sections of the walk may be depressing because of the impact of urbanisation.

“I used to be an environmental educator and I believe that our future lies with the youth. Children are very quick to understand the impact of pollution. That is why we have decided to focus on as many schools as we can along the river.”

Their plan is to go to all 119 schools that fall within a one-kilometre radius of the river bank. The team will educate the children on water awareness and get them involved in the care of the river. “It would be fantastic to get schools to become stewards of the river and to get them to volunteer to look after a section of the river front.”

The team will also be walking through a number of farms along the way and they are hoping to engage with a farmers on the subject of water quality and wastage. “We have contacted farmers and asked permission to walk on their land. We have also contacted the tribal chiefs and community leaders where we will be walking on communal land.

“We would like community members and interested parties to join us along sections of the walk to show solidarity with the cause.” One of the long-term aims of the project is to establish a green corridor alongside the river where green tourism can flourish. “In preparing for the walk, I have come across many people who have been thinking along similar lines. One idea was to create a Berg to Beach hike which could be done parallel to the Umgeni.

Another aim is to document their progress on film and turn the trip into a documentary which can be used to educate school children. If sponsorship becomes available they are hoping to provide school children with camcorders so they can film and record their own mini documentaries at a later stage to record their environmental progress.

The team wishes to identify community candidates who would be willing to be river monitors. They would be educated about water issues and given training on how to monitor the water quality. Joining them at some sections of the river will be sangomas and traditional healers who will bless the river and perform ceremonies.

“Certain places along the river have sacred significance for the Zulu people and even the San tribe who once lived in these parts. We think that including the traditional aspects of the river is important,” said Rees.

Above: The Umgeni River, just below Howick Falls.

• To inquire about the Umgeni Source to Sea Walk, contact Penny Rees at 082 340 7571 or e-mail her on pennyduct@vodamail.co.za

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