Fountain of Life
© Ivan Roberts
Molly Bergen

At the peak of last year’s dry season in South Africa’s Northern Cape province, the only water pump in the village of Leliefontein broke down for nearly a month. Had this happened one month earlier, community members in the arid region would have been forced to travel long distances in search of fresh water, purchase water for prices they couldn’t afford, or simply go without it.

Instead, villagers simply went down to the nearby natural spring – newly-restored by the Leliefontein Wetland Project – where they collected water free of charge. Funded in part by Conservation International (CI), this project is continuing to prove that intact natural ecosystems can often provide for human and wildlife communities when man-made infrastructure cannot.

Invasive Trees, Less Water

The life-force of the Kamiesberg Mountains lies almost entirely under the surface. With no permanent rivers and infrequent rains, the people and highly-adapted species residing in this region of northwestern South Africa are largely dependent on natural springs that bubble up from underground.

LEARN MORE: CI works with communities around the world. Find out more about these unique partnerships.

This reliance has deep roots in the region. Centuries ago, the nomadic Nama people regularly visited the wetlands near Leliefontein (a name combining the Afrikaans words for “lily” and “fountain”) to water their animals at its clean natural spring.

In 1816 the country’s first Methodist church was erected nearby. The church soon planted poplar trees (Populus canescens) around the spring to provide shade and building materials. These invasive trees spread rapidly throughout the region, each tree soaking up hundreds of liters of water every day and nudging out native species. The white lily for which Leliefontein was named, Zantedeschia aethiopica, was soon declared locally extinct. Additionally, when the poplar trees died and fell down, they damaged the fencing around the spring, leaving it open to wandering donkeys and cattle, which then contaminated the water source with their manure.

Restoring the Spring

The Leliefontein Wetland Project began in September 2009 with the purpose of restoring this once bountiful ecosystem for the benefit of nearby residents. The project was undertaken by the local farmer’s union, the church and the Agricultural Research Council unit based at the University of the Western Cape, with funding from SKEPPIES, CI-South Africa’s small-grants program.

As a first step, a team of locally-hired laborers and volunteers cut down many of the poplar trees (leaving some for their shade benefit). Wood from the felled trees has been repurposed for a variety of uses, including seating for a new outdoor meeting space on the church grounds. Additional wood is freely available to villagers, who use it for fuelwood, fencing material and other purposes.

 IN DEPTH: Find out more about the SKEPPIES Community Conservation and Small Grant Program

In the absence of these water-intensive trees, the spring’s water flow has been greatly increased. The project’s workers have also removed solid waste from the spring, rebuilt the dilapidated wells with sandstone blocks, built new fences to keep out wandering livestock and reestablished nine species of native plant, including the flagship species Zantedeschia aethiopica. Students from the local primary school have been monitoring the survival of these reintroduced species.

“Just thinking about how one poplar tree used so much water for all these years, I felt proud to know that the 47 trees I cut down made an important contribution in saving our very important water resource,” said Alton Roberts, who wielded the chain saw on the project. “It is a great joy to see the hard work we’ve done.”

Fresh Water + Communities

In the first three months since this project started, major changes have already occurred. Locals have observed bird and insect species returning to the restored wetland—a good indication of its improving health. Eventually, the community intends to remove all the poplar trees and replace them with native species.

In a region with a nearly 70 percent unemployment rate, even the project’s temporary job opportunities have the ability to transform lives. Not only are workers provided with a rare source of income, but in the process they learn more about the natural benefits of wetlands.

Restored natural habitats and alternative sources of income could further increase livelihood opportunities in Leliefontein. The project’s manager recently completed a course in business management arranged by CI; the restored area and fountains are already being incorporated into the village’s tourism planning. Additionally, food gardens established on the edges of the wetlands could improve local diets while expanding household incomes.

Access to clean fresh water may be a universal human right, yet about one in six people worldwide are currently living without it. The Leliefontein project illustrates that when small-grants funds like SKEPPIES support grassroots conservation efforts, the social, economic and biodiversity benefits far outnumber the costs.

READ MORE: In Namaqualand, Water for All

This project would not have been possible without original research provided by the Agricultural Research Council.