OPINION | Tarryn Johnston: Saving the Hennops River is essential for Gauteng's future

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Hennops River flows strongly under the low-water bridge. (Deaan Vivier, Media24)
Hennops River flows strongly under the low-water bridge. (Deaan Vivier, Media24)

We cannot wait to wake up until another flood generates damages to the tune of millions of rand, putting populations in distress and under health risks, writes the founder of Hennops Revival, Tarryn Johnston

Johannesburg and Pretoria are notorious for having some of the largest urban spaces in the world away from significant water supplies. The state of our few rivers directly reflects a tremendous amount of pain, a broken system, and a massive disconnection between the people who live in Gauteng and its environment.

The Hennops River is one of the few and largest water bodies in Gauteng. The river crosses three metros and two provinces, including densely populated areas like Kempton Park, Tembisa and Centurion. The flooding of 5 February 2022 is a saddening sign of the urgency to address its problems. It showcases the need to promote sustainable growth, environmental protection and urban revitalisation in the most populous South African province.

The floods impacted the lives of the more than one million people who live adjacent to the river, around 10% of the province's population. They have generated damage worth millions of rand, social disruption, and the potential for a health hazard.

And the reasons for the river catastrophe are multiple. Over-development and environmental degradation have led to the destruction of our wetlands, forcing water to go into stormwater drains that lead to the river. As a result, the river's limited wildlife and terrible water quality directly impact all of the communities living next to it.

Affects the entire province 

While the Hennops River ecosystem and biodiversity have been threatened, the negative impact affects the entire province. Similar damaging floods are frequent, and the risks are only increasing due to climate change. Since the last major flood in December 2019, many communities have taken action to ensure ownership in reclaiming our environment and improving the quality of life for all.

Hennops Revival is one of the initiatives that citizens have led to help to address this problem. Since its inception in 2019, we have cleaned up more than 1.5 million kilograms of trash from the river, comprising more than 65 000 bags collected. While we have gathered more than 3 000 volunteers so far, we are far from resolving the root causes of the problem. Palliative measures, including frequent river cleaning, are crucial but insufficient. Therefore, local, provincial and national governments must act, and soon. Together with civil society and the private sector, all parties need to proactively implement preventative measures, ensuring a complete restoration and revitalisation of the Hennops.

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Researchers have provided extensive evidence on the benefits of river restoration, particularly in urban environments. Restoring the river course through catchment systems, removing barriers and reducing waste dump can improve the river's wetland - a natural flood storage area. Creating sustainable drainage systems is also critical for the improvement of water quality and the enhancement of biodiversity to revitalise the river.

Positive economic impact 

Tangible results include supporting the regulation of floods, generating cultural and social environmental appropriation, and positive economic impact. It can promote social cohesion and bring citizens to claim their few natural spaces. Therefore, the government, the private sector, civil society and communities must continually seek innovative, practical and cost-effective ways of restoring the Hennops River and its people.

Indeed, revitalising the river can effectively empower communities and manage their immediate environment. Communities in densely populated areas like Tembisa, the second largest township in the country, should be provided with sustainable tools that enable all to be part of the solution. Such mechanisms should include incentive-based recycling points and the creation of composting sites and vegetable gardens, where people can exchange their organic waste for food. Claiming the river can assist communities to effectively create a sense of ownership of their environment, complementing the work conducted by the government, ad generating a shared sense of purpose.

Minimising the amount of waste discarded into the waterways can significantly impact this province. Better water quality testing and bio-monitoring can have tangible socio-economic benefits to our economy, which is already sluggish. But action must be taken now. We cannot wait to wake up until another flood generates damages to the tune of millions of rand, putting populations in distress and under health risks.

Tarryn Johnston is the founder and CEO of Hennops Revival.

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