Wine farmers in the Cape Winelands District around the town of Worcester regard 2017 as one of the driest growing and ripening periods they’ve ever seen.

Along the Upper Breede River these farmers depend heavily on healthy water resources – with most irrigating their vineyards and citrus fruit orchards from the river and its many tributaries. According to Elkerine Rossouw, water use specialist at the Breede-Gouritz Catchment Management Agency (BGCMA), the importance of viticulture and fruit farming operations here cannot be overstated. ‘These farming operations have a large income base for South Africa in terms of export, and provide huge numbers of employment.’ In the local municipality of Breede Valley alone, the agriculture sector employs 24% of the workforce.

Competition, however, can be quite fierce for the Breede River’s water, says the team that developed the Western Cape’s Smart Agriculture for Climate Resilience Strategy, known as SmartAgri. Crop irrigation accounts for 68% of the river’s water use. And that means there can be some rivalry among those who use this resource.

Climate change experts also warn of the threat of invasive alien plant infestations and fire risks. This is likely to become more problematic under climate change. They advise that swift action be taken along watercourses, such as the Breede River. Topping that list is the improved management of water resources, including that catchments and wetlands be conserved.

One farmer knows all about the importance of a healthy Breede River. Pieter Brink, 49, farms along the Upper Breede River, and irrigates his vineyards with water from the river. He is the fourth generation to rely on its constant flow. He in turn provides employment to 22 full-time staff. ‘For me, the Breede River is more than a water source. As a child, I played along the banks of the river, and caught fish here. I love nature. And I realised, if I don’t conserve this for my children, then no one will protect it.’

Brink joined forces with an innovative partnership, including the Western Cape Department of Agriculture’s LandCare team, the BGCMA, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Development Planning, Western Cape (DEADP) and landowners along the banks of the river. The plan? To firstly clear the riverbanks of invasive plants, and then rehabilitate the river’s watercourses. In the past year alone, the project has cleared around 800 hectares, including densely infested adult black wattle and bluegum trees, and created 12 000 person days of work.

According to Brink, the impact of the project can already be felt. ‘The Breede River has more water than last year, but we’ve had a third of last year’s rain in this area. We now see more small buck and caracal. With the trees removed from the riverbanks, the air flows more freely through my vineyards, and I’ve seen a big reduction in frost as a result. That’s worth millions.’

Brink’s involvement in the project includes the rehabilitation of a 47 hectare wetland area. Once the LandCare team had cleared the riparian zone, they planted natural vegetation along the banks of the river, including yellowwood, wild almond and wild peach. It’s Brink’s responsibility to ensure these trees are irrigated regularly, to survive the current drought.

The trees and plants are sourced from Kluitjieskraal Nursery, the oldest state nursery in the country, situated just outside Wolseley. The nursery had all but closed down a few years ago. Today Kluitjieskraal captures the heart of this innovative partnership.

LandCare joined forces with a local non-profit, Breedekloof Wine and Tourism, representing more than 30 local cellars, to bring the operation back to life. And now the nursery employs seven full-time staff from the historically disadvantaged communities of Pine Valley and Kluitjieskraal. Their salaries are covered by both LandCare and the non-profit.

This team, led by Jeanette Filander, grows and cares for 25 000 plants every year. Most of the plants are used to rehabilitate cleared areas. The rest, about 11 000 plants, are sold during an annual farmer’s day. More than 120 farmers attend this event from all over the Cape Winelands and beyond. All the income raised during this day is ploughed back into the project.

Fifty-five year old Aunt Nenna, as Jeanette is known among her colleagues, says she loves the work. ‘I have a love of plants, and don’t like it when a plant dies. I really developed this love after my grandson died. Now I make flower arrangements at my house.’

Aunt Nenna has no formal training in the nursery, having worked as a domestic worker previously. But she taught herself by ‘stealing with the eyes. Now I walk through the nursery every day, and say: Lord, I plant these seeds and give them water, but you make them grow.’

The BGCMA’s Elkerine Rossouw says the timing of the partnership couldn’t have been better. ‘We are having an extremely dry year. And yet we have pockets of water coming from subsurface release. Someone said we had hit a pipeline, they couldn’t believe there was water. But by taking out the aliens and re-establishing indigenous vegetation, we are securing water because of this water release.’

What’s more, the project is helping to reduce competition for water. ‘We now have people, including many landowners, working together. When it comes to water, sometimes people don’t work together. With this project, it’s amazing. We see people motivate and nag their neighbours to get involved.’

According to Brink, ‘To be part of the plan, that is the best part for me. The people in this partnership drive out to see how well the plants are growing along the river. That shows that they really care.’

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