Water security is an ongoing issue in South Africa, highlighted by the critical situation in Cape Town where the city came within days of running out of drinking water in 2018. One of the threats to the water supply in South Africa is invasive plants, which grow prodigiously, utilising large amounts of water. This seriously depletes soil moisture in the affected regions, reducing groundwater recharge and ultimately river levels. When also considering the impacts on biodiversity, soil quality and fire risk, invasive plants can cause significant environmental and economic costs.
To limit the impact of invasive alien species, the Government of South Africa launched the ‘Working for Water’ (WfW) programme in 1995. The programme provides public grant funding for demonstration and is administered by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.
WfW is a national public works programme with the objective of removing invasive plants, thereby increasing the water supply. The programme creates partnerships with local communities who employ people to carry out the works in affected areas. ‘Hacking teams’ are organised, and use mechanical, chemical, and biological methods to control and remove the undesired plant life.
Over 300 projects are active across the country, providing tailored training and jobs to around 20,000 people a year. Recruitment efforts focus on marginalised groups: the unemployed, youth, and disabled people. More than 50% of those employed are women.
Since the programme’s inception, more than one million hectares have been cleared. Water availability has increased in the cleared areas. It has also succeeded in raising consumer awareness, while improved water availability and local ecosystems have boosted land productivity.
WfW shows how the public procurement of ecosystem services can also contribute to economic and social development. While some studies suggest that the targeting of employment opportunities (to marginalised groups) could be improved, other research indicates that half of the workers recruited were unemployed prior to their participation.
Public works programmes can help contribute to green growth priorities in many countries. GML 9.