Freshwater is all around us, we rely on it to live, but the extended drought in Makhanda has not only inconvenienced us, it has placed the animals that rely on those system in danger.

To find out more I spoke to Nick James, who has lived in the area for 34 years, is a professional ichthyologist and Chairman of the Oldenburgia Conservancy.

It is important to start with the three freshwater systems in the area; the Kariega, Bloukrans/Kowie and the New Year’s River. The main threats these rivers face are human waste, with the New Year’s river so polluted from the township water treatment plant that Nick calls it a “dead system.” The Bloukrans faces a similar situation from the sewage works in the Belmont Valley. While the Kariega system is over-exploited, full of exotic fish and invasive vegetation it is in comparatively better condition than the other systems.

Invasions of alien plants reduce water flow in streams, while the habitat’s surrounding the stream are under clutter and sediment. This is an example of a damaged system.
Photo and annotations by Nick James

There are some alien fish species in the area but the likes of the Gambusia seem to have died out. There used to be the indigenous Eastern Cape Rocky (Sandelia bainsii) which can be found further East but are still endangered and are probably no longer present in the Kowie system.

The polluting of these waters has had serious consequences, there use to be migrations of Barbus minnows up the rivers, but that has not happened in a long time.

“Catchments maintained in good order with no invasive vegetation provide secure aquatic habitats (Rivendell Valley, upper Oldenburgia Stream)”
Photo by Nick James

I was pleased to hear from Nick that there are aquatic sanctuaries at Rivendell, which is at the top of the Oldenburgia stream, and on the Glenstone Farm adjoining the Thomas Baines Reserve, where there is no invasive vegetation and where indigenous minnows can live.

In terms of who uses the water, mostly it is livestock downstream, but the Thomas Baines Reserve and some of the game farms in the area rely on these rivers to provide drinking water to the animals there.

Excessive amounts of fires are another factor that pollute rivers and catchment areas as ash and debris get into the water system while runoff erodes the river banks.
Photo by Nick James

The biggest impact of the polluting of the water systems is in the nutrition these add to the various eco-systems that rely on them. These eco-systems draw on the nutrients provided by the rivers, but if the chemicals and other pollutants become more dominant than the nutrients the eco-systems will begin to degrade and will not be able to support themselves or the various animals and insects that rely on them. Beyond this, we rely on these systems for our own drinking water and the effects of drinking polluted water can be extremely dangerous.

Unfortunately, there are very few organizations that are trying to make a change and protect the freshwater systems and Nick credits the municipality for doing very little if anything with regards to aquatic conservation in the Makhanda region. But there is something we can do, we need to be more concerned about the state our freshwater systems, and through that concern become more active in cleaning up our environment. There need to be more active groups to provide this initiative and we need to act and not assume that it is someone else’s problem that they will deal with, it is our problem that we need to deal with.

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