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    Alex has been consulting to many of South Africa’s blue-chip companies for the past five years, using innovative thinking to help them reduce their impact on the environment and enhance their bottom line. He is also a founding member of Carbon Calculated, a carbon management consultancy, and is also the creator of Carbon Known, a carbon management software solution.
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  • Research Topic: Articles

    To add water, subtract weeds

    Thursday, December 15, 2016

    Mandela’s least known legacy may be his Working for Water programme, which employs thousands of marginalised people to clear invasive plant species, securing precious water supplies in perpetuity. 


    Having eradicated apartheid and sown the seeds of real democracy, Nelson Mandela had to confront a looming threat to the security and hope of South Africans. Weeds.

    The rampant growth of invasive alien plant species (IAPs) was choking riparian areas, draining river systems and overrunning natural ecological habitats – all in a semi-arid landscape where there was not enough water to
    go around.

    Each species in isolation – and there were over 80 species – may have seemed little more than a noxious nuisance. But together they had grown to cover 16 percent of the country’s land area, and the cumulative effect was to reduce annual streamflow by 7 percent.

    Recognising this risk, Mandela’s team began, through labour-intensive plant removal, to claw back 4 percent of this water, and make it newly available for human use. The result led to an inter-governmental, multi-million dollar national response known as the Working for Water (WfW) programme.

    This approach could also make sense in other parts of the world. Christo Marais, Chief Director of Natural Resource Management Programmes, of which the largest is WfW, urges governments to consider upstream alien plants in the water supply/demand equation. “The degradation and transformation of wetlands,riverbanks and flood plains leads to a reduced amount of water being absorbed into the natural systems and later released into the aquatic ecosystems,” he says.

    A national problem doesn’t arise overnight or by accident. European settlers had deliberately introduced many plant species over three hundred years to support dune stabilisation, woodlots, and tannin production. Acacias, wattle, pine and eucalyptus have become among the most prominent species. Under dry windy conditions, a single Australian bluegum (Eucalyptus salinga) can absorb seven hundred litres per square metre of leaf cover each day. Invaded landscapes can annually consume 300-400 millimetres (mm) more than natural grassland, cutting runoff by 3-4,000 cubic metres per hectare.

    South Africa is caught between diminishing rainfall (now 464mm/ year) and a growing population of 55 million. It cannot afford to sacrifice water to alien plants.

    Indeed, there’s less than nothing to spare. The country’s 2013 National Water Resource Strategy stresses that the country’s financially viable freshwater resources are already “fully utilised”, putting its 4,395 dams under immense pressure as agriculture and urban demand runs apace. As 8 percent of the country’s landmass produces more than half its runoff, every drop must be harnessed for productive use.

    “The water needs to be captured before we lose it,” says Marais. “We can’t allow the natural ecosystems to clog with invasive alien vegetation.” He adds that every 3-10 hectares of densely infested land, once restored to full ecological function through alien plant eradication, releases enough water to irrigate a hectare of land in perpetuity.

    After amassing two decades of proof, WfW has become a poster child for innovative, strategic, and scalable responses to invasive vegetation – augmenting supplies in water scarce regions. But Marais says this isn’t an either/or approach to water security.

    “It is important to understand that the eradication of aliens works in tandem, and supports, necessary infrastructure,” he says. “All we are doing is improving the efficiency of existing water supply systems.”

    As a supplementary service WfW can focus on water replenishment while exploring the wider social benefits of a plant-clearing public works programme.

    The WfW model has attracted foreign visits and requests for presentation worldwide. While replicated nowhere in its exact form, other public employment programmes adapt its restorative focus. China’s “Grain for Green” project rehabilitates degraded mountainous areas while Ethiopia leverages labour, policy and official support to restore watershed services. Yet any city, agency or nation seeking to adapt the WfW recipe must grasp the five ingredients that underpin it.

    First, before eradicating existing alien species, stop new arrivals. National and local policy prohibits the continued introduction of invasive plants into the natural landscape, coupled with land use incentives against their detrimental effect. Trained customs officials practice stringent control at South Africa’s ports of entry.

    Second, strategic investment can yield multiple outcomes. By working directly with land users, WfW can direct government, corporate and development funding towards the most critical areas where eradication of invasive vegetation can yield the highest water resources. In the arid, northern part of the country, the state electricity utility, Eskom, led partners to invest US$3.3 million by clearing plants in order to enhance water availability and the productive land use for communities upstream of a newly built coal-fired power station.

    Also, research and development pays surprising dividends. For example, biological control of alien infestations may prove the most natural, safe and affordable tool. Officials annually invest US$3.5 million in the strictly managed introduction of host-specific species that drastically reduce seed production and even, in some cases, kill off the alien species.

    You also need to encourage diversified spin-offs. A strong focus on value-added enterprises from the WfW programme has germinated numerous small businesses. These convert cleared vegetation into building materials, energy sources and other economic activities. Rather than simply dispose of dead vegetation, people recycle it, even in the manufacture and distribution of school desks to the national Department of Basic Education.

    A final step is to highlight how plant eradication generates skills, income, and jobs in urban and rural areas alike. Against a national 30 percent unemployment rate, WfW forges linkages between ecosystem services and steady careers. Those benefits stand out as a double revelation. Since inception, Marais’ programme, of which WfW is part, has created more than 225,000 person-years of employment, with opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised. Indeed half of all recent WfW employment opportunities go to women, more than sixty percent are under 35 years old, and military veterans and parolees often find work through the programme.

    Even WfW proponents stress that alien-plant clearing is not a panacea for all water supply ills. Nor does it play the lead. Its importance lies in the ‘best supporting actor’ role: improving the performance of existing infrastructure. But if strategically manipulated, ecosystem service programmes like WfW can offer far wider socio-economic benefits than merely building and filling dams.

    Source: Alex Hetherington, The Source, September 2016


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    Natural capital analysis shows companies how to grow business value

    Thursday, July 14, 2016

    Companies can better manage environmental risks to their businesses and identify opportunities to benefit from the transition to a low-carbon, circular economy using the insights provided by natural capital analysis, according to a new report by Trucost.

    Fast Facts:

    • Until now, companies have struggled to account for environmental impacts within financial decision making due to the different units of measurement used.
    • Natural capital valuation solves this problem by calculating the financial cost to society of environmental damage – e.g. health costs from associated with pollution.
    • Companies that want to grow need to understand the extent to which their ability to achieve revenue targets may be constrained by rising natural capital costs through regulation, social campaigns and resource shortages – and identify alternative strategies to minimise costs and increase profits.
    • By providing a standardised framework, the Protocol harmonies the many different natural capital approaches, and guides businesses towards the information that they need in order to generate, trusted, credible and actionable information around natural capital impacts and dependencies.
    • Alongside the launch of the Natural Capital Protocol, two additional sector guides on food and beverage and apparel will also be released, developed by Trucost on behalf of the Coalition. The sector guides work as extensions of the Protocol, and guide practitioners through sector-specific challenges and opportunities.
    • Dr Richard Mattison, chief executive of Trucost, said: “As a pioneer of natural capital valuation, Trucost has worked with more than 200 companies… The Natural Capital Protocol and sector guides will encourage even more companies to discover the range of benefits that result from integrating natural capital into decision making, from enhanced risk management to identifying new business opportunities.”

    Source: Trucost, 13/07/2016

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    Conflicting studies on Karoo shale gas

    Friday, May 13, 2016

    The Petroleum Agency SA (Pasa) has modelled a higher potential for shale gas in the Karoo than the previous conservative estimates, but there is still considerable uncertainty.

    Fast Facts:

    • A lot more drilling will be needed to determine if economically viable shale gas is present, but drilling is less invasive than fracking.
    • Selwyn Adams, principal geologist at Pasa said on Wednesday that, after new modelling, Pasa had estimated there was 183tcf of technically recoverable gas in place in the Whitehill formation. But there was still considerable uncertainty about the porosity, permeability and gas content.
    • Pasa has concluded that the most prospective area of the Karoo for shale gas is about 78,000km², but the area of lowest risk within that is only about 5,000km².
    • Nic Beukes, a director of the Centre of Excellence for Integrated Mineral and Energy Resource Analysis, said the centre’s Karoo Research Initiative (Karin) study suggested shale gas potential in the southern Karoo was limited.
    • Falcon and Bundu have both updated the environmental management plans needed for shale-gas exploration licences but Shell has not. Mr Adams said once Falcon and Bundu were granted exploration permits, they would conduct seismic studies first and then exploration drilling.
    • Fracking would not take place before about five years.

    Source: Business Day, Charlotte Mathews, 12/05/2016

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    Forward-thinking companies get proactive about water use

    Thursday, April 21, 2016

    In most places on Earth water holds practically no financial value whatsoever. But water can no longer be seen as an infinite resource as shortages become ever more commonplace across the world.

    Fast Facts:

    • Demand for water is projected to rise by 40% in the next 20 years.
    • Water and its delivery are often cheapest in the parts of the world where it is most scarce.
    • Betsy Otto, global director at the WRI Water Programme, says: “…We need to understand that we are out of balance and that there are very serious risks.”


    How many litres

    • SABMiller found that 90% of its water use came from growing the ingredients for its beer, such as barley and hops, rather than the actual water used to make the beer itself.
    • SABMiller resolved to cut its own water use by 20% by 2015, a target that was met “a little early”. It now uses on average 3.5 litres of water to produce a litre of beer, and the company has set a target of just three litres by 2020.
    • Levi Strauss is now using 96% less water in making a pair of jeans far less than the industry average of 11,000 litres.
    • This initiative has saved not only one billion litres of water, but also energy consumption, and it has translated into a costs saving of 4 cents (2.8p) per pair of jeans.



    • The great unknown is whether, one day, water itself rather than the delivery of it will be priced to reflect its uniquely important role in the global economy. Some argue that as a basic human right a price can never be put on accessing water; others that it is an unavoidable necessity.
    • Research by Trucost suggests that more than half of the profits of the world’s biggest companies would be at risk if water was priced to reflect its value.

    Source: BBC News, Richard Anderson, 13/04/2016

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    Eskom to receive R2,6bn in renewable energy projects

    Wednesday, April 20, 2016

    The New Development Bank (NDB), known as the Brics Bank, said on Monday that Eskom will receive $180m (R2.6bn) in assistance for renewable energy projects.

    Fast Facts:

    • This part of a global package of $811m (R11.85bn) in green energy loans it approved last week.
    • A spokesperson for the bank said the Eskom projects would involve transmission lines to carry 670 MW of generation and 500 MW worth of renewable energy projects involving independent power producers.
    • “With this we embark on a journey to provide speedy assistance to projects across developing nations. We are pleased that the projects deal with green and renewable energy and hope they will act as catalysts for development in our member states” Brics president K V Kamath said.
    • In accordance with its core focus, this first set of projects being financed by the NDB is in the area of green and renewable energy.
    • It is estimated that the projects will collectively provide additional generation capacity of 2 370 MW of clean energy.

    Source: fin24, 18/04/2016

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