Still barking up the wrong tree

In last week’s Kormorant the question was posed: “Are we barking up the wrong tree?” concerning the control of hyacinths on Hartbeespoort Dam. Perhaps a counter question should be: “Is there any other tree?”
It is an indisputable fact that the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) is legally obliged to control the hyacinth infestation on the dam and that for the past year it has failed to do so, resulting in a vast surface area being covered by this weed. It is also a fact that the control, removal and transport of hyacinths are subject to strict regulation in terms of the bio-diversity act overseen by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Equally indisputable is the fact the economy of Hartbeespoort relies heavily on tourism and that tourist operators have suffered heavy losses as result of the hyacinth infestation.
If we lived in a normal society with a normal, corruption free, efficient public service and competent ministers, there wouldn’t have been a problem. The Metse A Me programme for the control of hyacinths would not have been terminated; the sewage plants of Madibeng and the other municipalities upstream of the dam would not release tons of untreated sewage into the dam to stimulate the hyacinth growth and there would have been sufficient money to effectively control the obnoxious weed.
The obvious course is to call DWS to account for its inaction in controlling the weed. The department might be unable to fulfil its obligation, because of corruption, incompetence, budgetary constraints or whatever, but instead of being honest with the community, it is playing games. To put them on terms and institute legal remedies would require deep pockets and years of expensive litigation.
In terms of issues demanding DWS’s attention, it is understandable that Hartbeespoort Dam is not very high on the national department’s list of priorities. The dam is almost 100 percent full and the hyacinth infestation, unsightly as it is, keeps the quality of the water at an acceptable level. The fact that the dam is now unfit for recreational purposes and that the tourist industry suffers as a result seems to be, in the department’s view, mere collateral damage.  The drought and the condition of the dams in other parts of the country are a much bigger problem. Also, with a budget shortfall of more than three billion rand the department is not really in a position to do anything constructive.
But the local office and officials of the department are not required to solve the water problems of the Western Cape. They are supposed to deal with the problems of Hartbeespoort Dam and to be sensitive to the needs of the community they are supposed to serve. From past experience they must have known the impact hyacinth infestation would have on the local economy. The Metse A Me programme was largely the result of years of interaction between officials of the department and civic organisations such as HWAG. When their minister took the illegal and illogical decision to terminate the programme, they should have taken the community into their confidence. Instead, they played a game of smoke and mirrors with the so-called Resource Management Plan. Ironically, the aim was, amongst others, supposed to promote Hartbeespoort Dam as a recreational venue for the previously disadvantaged.
The initiative to remove the hyacinths from the dam should have come from the local officials of DWS. At the very least, when the initiative came from the community, they should have embraced it and undertook to supply legal and logistical support. Nobody who participates in the programme should be exposed to the possibility of receiving a hefty fine for contravening the regulations concerning the transport or possession of invasive alien species. Nobody who removed hyacinths from the water should have wondered what to do with the plants. The infrastructure for the processing of the hyacinths and algae was established by the Metse A Me programme. With the help of the community it could have been maintained. The involvement of the Working for Water teams of casual labourers only adds to the problem because they simply move the hyacinths from the water to the shore with no provision for its disposal.
DWS has over the years done a lot of research on hyacinths and its control and how it is done in other countries. All this information could be made available to volunteers who want to be involved. This could be a successful co-operative programme if DWS is prepared to do its part – to admit that it needs help and help to remove the legal and logistical obstacles where it is within its power.
Have we been barking up the wrong tree? Perhaps we have, but all the other trees are so withered and stunted that perhaps this is the only one that is worth barking up. That is, if we can generate some enthusiasm in the bureaucrats and get them to admit that they are the ones who need help.

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