Harties vs the hyacinth (Part 3) – R24-million in funding left unspent as invasive weed overgrowth worsens
The Department of Water and Sanitation has set aside R24-million to clear the Hartbeespoort Dam of hyacinth. But the money is yet to be spent, despite businesses being on their knees owing to the weed’s overgrowth.
The health of Hartbeespoort Dam and its biodiversity has long been threatened by the spiralling overgrowth of the invasive water hyacinth.
Years of funding and a variety of efforts have fallen flat and have been inconsistent; allowing the continued growth of the hyacinth, which has brought biodiversity and businesses to their knees.
Daily Maverick’s third and final instalment in its series on Hartbeespoort Dam follows the funds and the financial leakage that has left the dam in its current state.
At a meeting held earlier this year in Hartbeespoort and attended by locals, concerned businesses, the Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), it was revealed some R24-million specifically allocated to the dam was left unspent over the 2022/3 financial year.
“It came from senior managers at the department about how they had R24-million that they never spent in the 2022/23 financial year. They were going to try and spend some money now before this year’s financial year closes. They said they were going to buy some brooms and stuff, which is great. But work should have been done six months ago to prevent the crisis we’ve got now,” John Wesson from WESSA told Daily Maverick.
Harties hyacinth not urgent enough
DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavas confirmed that a budget had been allocated to clear the dam, an amount that will in future be designated annually to clearing the dam.
“None of the funds have been used thus far. The initiative, which is essentially to reinstate a legacy project in terms of handling the manifestation of the hyacinths, only started in January 2023, which was very close towards the end of the financial year (2022/2023); hence expenditure is yet to be realised in the current financial year,” Mavasa said.
Read in Daily Maverick: Harties vs the hyacinth (Part 1) – The toxic dangers lurking under cover of an invasive weed
The department previously told Daily Maverick that it had not issued any tenders for the physical and mechanical removal of biomass on the dam; including both hyacinth and the water fern (salvinia minima), which lives underneath the hyacinth.
Mavasa said, however: “ [The department] is in the process of engaging potential implementation agents to develop and implement a remediation plan for the receiving or upper catchment of the dam, to address the water quality flowing in as well as the management of the biomass of the dam. This consists of the existing biological control managed by the Department of Forestry Fisheries and Environment and mechanical removal of hyacinths.”
DWS said it has been issuing permits and general authorisation to private entities and individuals eager to clear up the dam, and had appointed implementing agents before the beginning of the 2023/4 year. The unused funds will, according to Mavasa, be relocated to the other urgent programmes in the department.
Daily Maverick previously reported that businesses have been brought to their knees by what they have described as one of the most disruptive hyacinth growths yet – with one comparing the hyacinth threat to the Covid-19 pandemic.
For businesses operating in and around the Hartbeespoort Dam that rely on the tourists for their livelihood, clearing the dam is a matter of urgency; not only for businesses but also because of the toxic algal blooms that affect the dam’s biodiversity and potentially its water health.
Alongside the tourism aspect is the diverse birdlife that adds value to the tourist experience. Birdlife also aids the health of the ecosystem and, with a dam covered in hyacinth, birds are forced out of their habitat. Pink flamingos, of which the dam used to have more than 200, have now become a rare sight.
Rhodes’ biocontrol programme and DFFE
Hyacinth growth spiralled after the October to December rainfalls, pushing sewage into the dam, which added nutrients that the hyacinth relies on for growth. At the same time, a biocontrol programme facilitated by the Rhodes University Centre for Biocontrol Centre (RU-CBC) was awaiting a final decision on funding.
Most funding for clearing the dam has come from the DFFE. It has invested in RU-CBC, which runs the biocontrol project that introduces a bug to eat the hyacinth, thus removing it from the dam and lowering coverage.
The RU-CBC received R22-million over four years from the DFFE for aquatic weed research. It used the funds to launch the biocontrol project at the dam from 2018 to 2021. Albi Modise, now the DFFE’s former chief communications officer, told Daily Maverick that the department opens up the funding cycle every five years.
“The CBC biocontrol research programme was funded by DFFE until their contract ends on 31 March 2023. DFFE is in the process of finalising the successful bidders for the next five-year funding cycle,” Modise said, adding, “the department signed a service provider contract to the value of R41,616,002 for the 2022-2023 financial year for biocontrol research and support. The department has to date paid RU-CBC R20,808,001 [over the five-year funding cycle].”
According to the RU-CBC’s funding page, the project at the Hartbeespoort Dam has cost the centre almost R2-million a year to run the project successfully. Funds given to the centre are also used for several other programmes, and the Hartbeespoort Dam uses a third of the centre’s annual budget. RU-CBC is yet to hear whether it has received the funding to continue the project at the dam. While it waits, the centre has managed to raise R103,800 from 83 backers.
Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa’s (CCBSA) Mintirho Foundation also had a hand in efforts to clear the dam. The beverage company’s foundation had sponsored Hya Matla Organics, which had been harvesting hyacinth at the Hartbeespoort dam to turn it into organic fertiliser, until the hyacinth was illegally sprayed with herbicide, compromising the company’s organic status. The company now operates on other dams in the North West and Gauteng.
Motshidisi Mokwena, head of communications and reputation at CCBSA told Daily Maverick: “We did not fund the cleaning up of Hartbeespoort Dam. Through our Mintirho Foundation, we funded Hya Matla Organics, a black-owned business that harvests hyacinth and turns it into organic fertiliser, which is a key input for farmers for organically grown produce.
“We approved R26.8 million funding for them (part loan and grant funding). We have not disbursed all of it.”
When Daily Maverick visited the dam, sitting in the water among the hyacinth and toxic algal blooms, was some abandoned and rusted harvesting equipment that had evidently not been touched in months as the hyacinth bloomed. Workers around the dam were unsure about whom it belonged to.
David Abrahams, a yacht builder operating on the shores of the dam, told Daily Maverick that the harvester had been idle for almost two years.
“It’s money put into [the cleaning of the dam] and if you have this hyacinth stationary, you can easily remove the hyacinth. You can make bricks, furniture, compost – so much you can do with it. But the equipment just sits here, and if nothing is done, this dam is going to be completely covered with hyacinth,” Abrahams said. DM