School of Life Sciences

Presentations at the D’RAP webinar focused on the KwaZulu-Natal floods and river management, urban fish, and plastic pollution in the province’s waterways.

D’RAP Webinar Highlights City River Management’s Role in Saving Lives

The Durban Research Action Partnership (D’RAP) hosted a webinar that highlighted the issue of urban river management, a topic thrown into sharp focus by the flooding in KwaZulu-Natal in April and May this year.

Welcoming more than 40 participants to the event, research co-ordinator Ms Preshnee Singh introduced the D’RAP project, a joint initiative between UKZN and the eThekwini Municipality (EM) that since 2011 has created actionable research focusing on biodiversity, climate, and people.

Planned to be the first in a series of webinars enabling academics and municipal officials to interact, it included presentations from EM’s Dr Sean O’Donoghue and D’RAP postdoctoral researchers followed by a discussion.

‘We want to make this a useful series for both researchers and municipal officials so that stimulating discussions help us gain new ideas and perspectives,’ said Singh.

O’Donoghue, Senior Manager of the Climate Change Adaptation Branch at EM, spoke about lessons learned from the KZN flooding caused by unstable, waterlogged ground and clogged waterways, focusing particularly on the Transformative Riverine Management Programme (TRMP) being developed by EM in partnership with the C40 City Finance Facility.

Speaking about the Palmiet River Catchment Rehabilitation Project, O’Donoghue said the combined efforts of EM, UKZN and civil society resulted in collaborative development of solutions. The project had benefitted the Quarry Road West informal settlement adjacent to the river through efficient clearing of invasive alien plants and solid waste, reporting of sewer leaks and industrial pollution, the establishment of an Educational Partnerships for Innovation in Communities (EPIC) programme and a Flood Early Warning System (FEWS), as well as community training and employment opportunities.

Thanks to the FEWS and on the ground efforts by UKZN’s Professor Cathy Sutherland and EM’s Mr Smiso Bhengu, as well as oversight from the municipality’s Senior Manager of Catchment Management Mr Geoff Tooley, the Quarry Road West settlement suffered only one fatality during the floods of 11 and 12 April. O’Donoghue said without the above systems and efforts, there would undoubtedly have been a greater loss of life.

O’Donoghue said dissemination of information to vulnerable groups for decision-making and the manner of disaster response was critical. Responses in the area, which included trauma counselling from UKZN’s Student Support Services division, had drawn national praise.

‘We hope that we can not only get [the TRMP] going fully in Durban, but in other African cities as well so that it really becomes one of the cornerstones of nature-based solutions on the continent,’ said O’Donoghue.

Postdoctoral researchers from the Global Environmental Change phase of D’RAP that focused on rivers from source to sea, Dr Matthew Burnett and Dr Refilwe Mofokeng, presented on urban fish and plastic pollution respectively.

Burnett addressed how urban infrastructure had transformed aquatic environments, affecting water quality and environmental flows and subsequently fish health. Drawing on examples from his research, he spoke about the major fish kill (of about 20 tonnes of fish and resulting in a decline of species) resulting from a chemical spill from Willowton Oil into the Msunduzi River in 2019; the river ecosystem status monitoring programmme; barrier tracking, and the FISHTRAC smart radio telemetry tag system developed to assess the response of ecosystems to changes through real-time monitoring of fish behaviour.

Mofokeng presented on plastic pollution and shared results from surveys tracking plastic out to sea, and on the effect of COVID-19 on single-use plastic usage.

‘Ocean and river stresses include climate change, population growth and plastic pollution, and these threats can only be faced through improving public understanding of the aquatic system and importance of ocean, and river literacy,’ said Mofokeng. ‘The challenge is a growing population and economic disparity that impact opportunities for people to engage, but events like the flooding show the need to develop strategies to improve societal connections to rivers and the ocean.’

She emphasised that connecting people to rivers and the ocean was achieved through improving and progressing global ocean literacy to catalyse behavioural change to achieve a sustainable future.

Mr Patrick Martel of the School of Built Environment and Development Studies facilitated the discussion, and highlighted the importance of connectivity in both the natural biophysical perspective and the socio-economic perspective for effective governance.

The discussion honed in on issues including agroecology, aquaponics and food gardens, social justice, governance and power relations, ecosystem services, and citizen science.

Singh closed proceedings by thanking the presenters and Martel for their input, as well as Ms Janice Moodley and Mr Colin Pillay for technical and logistical support. Bhengu thanked participants for their attendance and interaction.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: eThekwini Municipality, Refilwe Mofokeng and Matthew Burnett