There’s a lot more to water than a hot cup of coffee or a cool drink on a hot day, as it not only sustains life but life cycles within – and beyond – river banks.
Standing on the Sabie River bank in the Kruger National Park (KNP), Lower Sabie area, SA National Parks (SANParks) freshwater ecologist Robin Petersen called the river one of the most pristine in Africa, and an extremely important river system in South Africa.
According to a State of the Rivers report by the department of water affairs and forestry, Sabie River has its source at 2 130m above mean sea level in the Drakensberg escarpment, drops into the Lowveld and joins the Sand River inside the KNP.
“It is one of the most biodiverse river systems in our country with 46 species of fish,” Petersen said. “The Sabie has a high conservation status and should be protected and maintained as a pristine river.”
Pristine doesn’t mean one should drink the water without boiling it first but rather that it reflects natural hydrology, biodiversity and features before human settlement.
It’s also a beacon for the South African effort towards World Fish Migration Day, taking place today.
Dr Gordon O’Brien of the University of KwaZulu-Natal said the spin-off from allowing fish to spawn in traditional, healthy, breeding grounds meant more food for natural predators and people. But because a river was exposed to human interference beyond the borders of the ecologically sensitive Kruger, it had some of the worst pollution in the world.
“The Olifants River is highly impacted, the Crocodile River is impacted and the condition of other river systems is poor, which affects the conservation potential,” he said. “It affects the systems and the surrounding communities.”
Petersen explained that the bridge across the river just past the Lower Sabie camp had formed a dam wall, which had prevented many species from returning to their spawning grounds. He noted the former spillway had been converted into a “rock ramp fishway”, the only example of its kind in South Africa.
“All the rocks were artificially placed and cemented in place. Studies were done on what fish needed in terms of certain amounts of water. They need resting stations, and all the rocks were placed with regard to the need for certain hydraulic features, so they can navigate the rapids and go where it needs to go in order to spawn,” Petersen said.
“Right now, SANParks is removing the Kanniedood Dam wall on the Shingwedzi River.”
Explosives were used by South African Army engineers to blow up the wall, and followed on the previous removals of Ngotso Dam, Ngotso Weir and Gudzani windmill, as part of a long-term project to restore the park to a more natural environment.
The recent 10-year drought – from which Kruger still hasn’t fully recovered – resulted in hundreds of animals dying of hunger due to no rain on the plains, even though the water in its major rivers never stopped flowing.
An abundance of artificially created water holes saw an explosion in the hippo population, which was equally decimated by the drought.
Equally in the smaller streams and rivers, which did stop flowing, fish and macro and microbiotic populations were wiped out and if there were undiscovered species – scientists are regularly finding new species in the Sabie – they were gone forever.
O’Brien said there were few South Africans who didn’t know what it was like to struggle without water. “Together, we need … to help manage these systems well.”