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THE ACTIONISTS

A champion of waterways and a ‘recycler on steroids’ – meet KZN’s Janet Simpkins

A champion of waterways and a ‘recycler on steroids’ – meet KZN’s Janet Simpkins
Janet Simpkins. (Photo: Thom Pierce, The Actionists)

Janet Simpkins’s personal mission to protect her family and the watersports she loved quickly morphed into a campaign that included a broader concern for the environment and communities that relied on the water for their livelihoods.

Janet Simpkins is a passionate paddler who has competed locally and internationally and today remains in the sport in an administrative role. 

Growing up on a 5-acre plot of indigenous forest in the north of Johannesburg set her up for an outdoor life, blessed with fresh air, clean water and an abundance of wildlife. Moving to the suburb of Emmarentia for schooling, she discovered her passion for water sports at Emmarentia Dam’s Dabulamanzi Canoe Club. 

It wasn’t until Janet and her husband left Gauteng for a KwaZulu-Natal coastal lifestyle for their family, that she became acutely aware of the state of the rivers and the growing extent of water pollution – and limited action being taken to combat it. 

Her children were involved in lifesaving and with a son, and husband still paddling, the personal safety of her loved ones was at risk. Instead of ordering them out of the water, Janet embarked on a campaign to save the rivers in Durban. 

“This is not my profession. I didn’t study anything environmental-based. I’m not a scientist. I was first and foremost a mother and wanted something better for my family. I am so concerned about the world we are leaving for our kids. That’s the driving factor.”

It was becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the polluted rivers. Besides the “common” diarrhoea cases there were also cases of hepatitis being reported. 

What started as a personal mission driven by the need to protect her family and the watersports she loved, quickly developed into a campaign that included a broader concern for the environment and communities that relied on the water for their livelihoods. 

Recognising that there are huge problems that I cannot solve alone and by taking small stretches of a waterway, focusing on small areas, you can make meaningful changes.

What began as a “Save Our Rivers” campaign and pilot project in 2019, focusing mainly on the uMngeni Catchment, quickly evolved into a more sustainable and formalised structure when Janet registered her nonprofit Adopt a River in 2020. 

Janet realised that to have any ongoing impact would be unsustainable without funding. As with many similar ventures, the need for sponsorship meant they had to formalise. 

The idea behind Adopt a River is to engage the government and corporations to partner and sponsor the clean-up of small stretches of river. By upskilling and empowering local communities they can allow for multiple grassroots clean-up operations using sustainable, community-based solutions to regenerate healthy waterways.

“Recognising that there are huge problems that I cannot solve alone and by taking small stretches of a waterway, focusing on small areas, you can make meaningful changes. If you concentrate on the community and you start introducing jobs, education and upliftment, it can shine through and when you get it right in one area it can spread.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

While Janet is clearly tackling the scale of the pollution by focusing on many small clean-ups, she is aware that the problem will not be solved simply by cleaning up waste on an ongoing basis. The problem, she clearly states, goes back to us as consumers and our waste responsibility, the products we are putting down our drains, for example, what we are sending to landfill, and the impact it has once it has left our homes. 

By her own admission, she has become a “recycler on steroids” and she understands the need to encourage others to do the same. But in the meantime Janet is doing what she can to provide cleaner and healthier waterways for the environment, her sports-loving friends, as well as the much wider community who rely on the rivers as a vital resource. DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Change is good sa says:

    We thank you Janet Simpkins for your passion and dedication. I do think individuals need more awareness of what they consume and where does it go once it goes down the drain. We are all to blame for not knowing. Also companies that produce harmful products that ultimately get washed into the water systems need to up their game. They sell the goods and make profits from this, they must contribute to water pollution solutions and systems. We need to make certain chemicals illegal covered by environmental laws, so that change happens and perpetrators of mass pollution can be prosecuted.
    I am talking about garden pesticides, pool chemicals, hygiene products and cosmetics, paint and paint related products and so the list would go on.

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