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Invasive species and the Working for Water programme in South Africa

Jan Hendrik Venter

Senior Plant and Quality Control Officer, National Department of Agriculture, Private Bag X 258, Room 419, Harvest House, Pretoria 0001, South Africa; e-mail:


Some 750 tree species and 8 000 herbaceous species have been introduced into South Africa. Of these, 1 000 have become naturalized and 200 species have become invasive. The Working for Water project is an interdepartmental initiative that was instigated by South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry in 1995 to combat invading alien plants and to create employment. The Departments of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs and Tourism are integrated in the programme. The national plant protection organization forms part of the programme with regard to the importation of plants and plant products as well as the introduction and release of biological control organisms. Legislation to categorize weed and invasive species prepared by the Directorate Land Use and Soil Management resulted in regulations that are understandable by the general public. Huge success has been achieved in combating Australian Acacia spp. through an integrated approach using mechanical and chemical methods as well as biological control agents. Research forms an important part of the programme. The programme has created more than 40 000 jobs with 300 projects throughout the country. It included and involved several other government departments, organizations and research institutes, achieved several international awards and is successfully removing alien invasive tree species across the country.


South Africa has a unique climate with diverse plant vegetation biomes, but almost two-thirds of the country is of a rather arid climate with very little rainfall. The exceptional climatic diversity is also reflected in the huge biodiversity that occurs throughout the country. This makes the country a very sought-after tourist destination and a nature lover’s paradise. Unfortunately, it also helps the easy establishment of a large variety of invasive alien species in all the different biomes (from forest biomes to semi-desert areas). In South Africa, 750 tree species and 8 000 herbaceous species have been introduced; 1 000 introduced species have become naturalized and 200 are invasive.

Acute droughts occur regularly and more than 12 million South Africans lack access to running water. It is estimated that invading alien plants cover 10 million hectares of land and, each year, use 3.3 billion cubic metres more water than the indigenous vegetation. These plants waste 7 percent of South Africa’s water resources. They reduce the ability to farm; intensify flooding and fires; cause erosion, destruction of rivers, siltation of dams and estuaries, and poor water quality; and can cause a mass extinction of indigenous plants and animals (refer The cost of controlling invading alien plants in South Africa is estimated at Rand 600 million a year over 20 years (approximately US$ 100 million annually). If these plants are left uncontrolled, the problem will double within 15 years. Invading alien plants are the single biggest threat to plant and animal biodiversity (Working for Water, 2000).

The Working for Water programme

South Africa is a developing country with a large part of the population living in rural areas; these people are also unemployed and uneducated.

The Government of South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs and Forestry created a conservation programme called Working for Water in 1995. This programme supports a variety of labour-intensive projects (figure 1) to eradicate invasive alien plants using mechanical methods, chemical methods and biological control. The main purpose of the project is to conserve water through the eradication of invasive alien species as part of the Reconstruction and Development Programme initiative. Operating as a labour-intensive public works programme, it reflects the South African government’s commitment to natural resource conservation, training, job creation, capacity building and poverty eradication (Magadlela, 2000).

Fig. 1: The Working for Water programme has created 40 000 jobs throughout South Africa; projects include the clearance of invasive alien plants.

Working for Water

The mission of the programme is described in the 1999/2000 annual report as:

The Working for Water programme will sustainably control invading alien species, to optimise the potential use of natural resources, through a process of economic empowerment and transformation.

In doing this, the programme will leave a legacy of social equity and legislative, institutional and technical capacity.

The objectives are to enhance water security, to improve the ecological integrity of natural systems, to restore the productive potential of the land, to invest in the most marginalized sectors in South Africa and enhance their quality of life through job creation, and to develop economic benefits from wood, land, water and trained people. An integrated approach with several departments and research institutes was essential in establishing, maintaining and expanding the programme’s holistic vision. The main driving forces of the programme are the unemployment in rural areas, the Reconstruction and Development Programme and the great need for woody invasive species to be cleared in specific areas all over the country (Magadlela, 2000).

The Departments of Agriculture and of Environmental Affairs and Tourism were integrated in the programme, causing these two departments to respond by developing legislation on invasive species in relation to imports, agriculture and the environment. The programme also drew in many other government departments: Social Development; Health; Arts, Culture, Science and Technology; Labour; Education; Trade and Industry. These were involved in an operational manner to reflect, implement and improve the relevant Acts ranging from labour relations and social development to welfare, health and trade. The Department of Finance is involved and, because the South African Treasury manages all funding from the Poverty Relief Fund, Working for Water is also accountable to Treasury.

The Working for Water programme operates in conjunction with a range of partner organizations. One is the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research based in Stellenbosch, north of Cape Town, which has been conducting research for the programme. This research has been supported by the International Development Research Centre since 1997. Researchers are looking for ways to boost the programme’s benefits and address critics’ concerns that the programme will reduce the economic benefits provided by some alien plants, such as black wattle (a species logged commercially in South Africa).

The Agricultural Research Council’s Plant Protection Research Institute plays an essential role in the research of biological control organisms and also with the advice and training for mass rearing of biocontrol organisms. Great successes have been achieved with biological control organisms. South Africa is now a leading country with regard to the research, release and effective implementation of biocontrol organisms (Zimmerman and Klein, 2000).

Working for Water has received funding and support from partners and sponsors in the private sector and internationally. This combination of intergovernmental, cross-sector and international support has allowed Working for Water to develop into a programme with more than 300 sites across the country in all the provinces. It has created more than 40 000 jobs, educated and trained unskilled labourers and helped in community development programmes.

Removal or eradication of invasive plants

In its approach to invasive alien species, South Africa has had to deal with the problem of woody invasive plants, which may be economically important but which are responsible for major water losses. The Working for Water programme has adopted an integrated approach to eradication of woody invasive species in predetermined areas. Different physical and chemical plus biological control methods are used. Mechanical and chemical methods (described on the programme’s Web site at include: basal bark herbicide treatment, hand pull removal, ring barking, frill cuts and herbicide, cut stump treatment and stem injection.

Biological control has been used successfully to supplement and sustain physical and chemical removal of invading alien plants, especially with regard to woody invasive species. Overall savings of 20 - 30 percent are possible if biocontrol methods are combined with physical and chemical control methods for woody species.

Biological control is a good solution when there is a conflict of interests regarding the control or eradication of the invasive species. For example, certain Acacia invaders have commercial value for forestry. Biocontrol agents can target specific plant organs, such as flowers and seeds. When an invasive plant has a commercial value, the choice of agent, therefore, may be one that attacks only vegetative parts of the plant or one that reduces seed production, rather than an agent that causes damage to the useful part of the plant. Seed-reducing agents reduce the reproductive potential of the plants, curb their dispersal and reduce the follow-up work needed after clearing, while still allowing for the continued utilization of the plant. If seeds are needed to replant a plantation, a seed orchard can be specially protected against the biocontrol agents in the same way as other crops are protected against insect pests (Zimmerman and Klein, 2000).

Although a safe and cost-effective control method, biological control does involve a period of research and concomitant high levels of education and expertise among researchers. A biocontrol agent is released only after it has been proved sufficiently host-specific for local conditions. Tested and approved biocontrol agents, therefore, do not pose a threat to South African crops or indigenous vegetation, or to those of neighbouring countries. No cases have occurred of weed biocontrol agents changing their host plant affinities after their release in a new country to include plants other than those known to be acceptable hosts. Since 1913, more than 82 species of biocontrol agents have been introduced into South Africa to control 47 weed species. From these introduced species no unpredicted host shift has occurred yet (Zimmerman and Klein, 2000; Klein, pers. comm.).

The purpose of biological control should never be to completely exterminate populations of the host plants. Biocontrol agents reduce population density and reduce the vigour and/or reproductive potential of individual plants. Biological control reserves should be kept in place to sustain small populations of the biocontrol agents in cleared areas that will ensure that the agent does not die out as a result of a lack of food. The small population of biocontrol agents that persists will disperse onto any regrowth or newly emerged seedlings of the weed. For this reason, biological control can be regarded as a sustainable control method.

The advantages of biological control (see are:

This combination of factors makes investment in biological control very worthwhile. Moreover, research experience and expertise from the Agricultural Research Council is utilized in projects in the rest of Africa. This improves the chances for effective control across the continent. History also provides the researchers enough evidence of successes to implement and utilize specific biological control agents.


The national Working for Water programme has been clearing invading alien plants since 1995. The programme grew from 20 projects in 1996 to over 300 projects currently. This rapid growth hindered the standardization of clearing methods and norms between regions. The result is a wide range of efficiency and productivity values across the country. A control and auditing programme, called activity sampling, was introduced to establish realistic norms for clearing methods with regard to person-days per hectare, to describe clearing methods used, to define size and density classes, and to establish standardized clearing methods for each species and for each operation. The Mondi Forests Work Study Department is responsible for the implementation of the activity sampling programme in each region. Evaluators are allowed to visit teams in the field and to make accurate assessments as to areas where improvement could lead to higher productivity. In specific areas where activity sampling was done, productivity rose from an average of 65 percent to more than 80 percent.


The Working for Water programme involves to a great extent the land user in a specific area and cannot operate effectively without the cooperation of the public. It is, however, also essential to have effective legislation in place to enable the programme to have a legislative justification. Legislation used in the programme is the Agricultural Pests Act, Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, National Environmental Management Act, Environment Conservation Act, National Water Act, and National Veld and Forest Fire Act.

Agricultural Pests Act, 1983 (Act No. 36 of 1983)

The purpose of the Agricultural Pests Act is to prevent the introduction of agricultural pests and organisms associated with agriculture. This involves the control of importation of plants and plant products and organisms associated with agricultural activities, such as biological control agents. This Act is executed by the Directorate Plant Health and Directorate South African Agricultural Food and Quarantine Inspection Services.

These two directorates also form the national plant protection organization for South Africa. Official international trade of plants and plant products is controlled by the NPPO in accordance with the Word Trade Organization’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures and the standards of the International Plant Protection Convention. The importation of plants is done through a permit system and declared weeds and invaders are prohibited according to the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act. Risk assessments are conducted for new plant applications to determine their potential as new weeds. Weeds and potential weeds are regarded as pests according to the IPPC definition and import is then prohibited. Biocontrol organisms are also imported on a permit system. The import is subjected to a review by a panel of experts. If enough background information is available and if import is approved, the organism is kept in a quarantine facility approved by the NPPO. Here it undergoes host specificity testing and extensive research before its official release to ensure that the agent will not damage other, non-target plants. After satisfactory research results have been achieved, the researcher on the project will apply to the NPPO and to the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism for release of the agent so that mass breeding programmes can start. Their application will then be reviewed by the NPPO and a panel of experts before the release from quarantine is approved.

Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, 1983 (Act No. 43 of 1983)

The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act was proclaimed to provide control over the utilization of the natural agricultural resources of South Africa in order to promote the conservation of the soil, the water sources and the vegetation and the combating of weeds and invader plants. A revision in 2001 (Government Gazette, 2001) to regulations 15 and 16, dealing specifically with declared weeds and invader plants, provided a major breakthrough in the effectiveness of the Working for Water programme. The revised regulations, with associated tables 3 and 4, made it easy for people to understand and interpret the regulations on weeds and invader plants.

Key points of the amended regulations are:

Other relevant Acts

The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism has two Acts in place with the main purpose of protecting the biodiversity of the country: the National Environmental Management Act, 1998 (Act No. 107 of 1998) and the Environment Conservation Act, 1989 (Act No. 73 of 1989). The broader objective is that environmental management must place people and their needs at the forefront of its concern, and serve their physical, psychological, developmental, cultural and social interests equitably. Development must be socially, environmentally and economically sustainable. Environmental management be integrated, acknowledging that all elements of the environment are linked and interrelated, and it must take into account the effects of decisions on all aspects of the environment and all people in the environment by pursuing the selection of the best practicable environmental option. This gives the Working for Water programme powers to include communities and to remove and control woody invasive species at the same time. Environmental impact assessments need to be done with the cooperation of the various land owners.

Note, also, that in March 2004 (i.e. after the date of the workshop on which this publication is based) a new National Biodiversity Act was promulgated.

Other Acts, such as the National Water Act, 1998 (Act No. 36 of 1998) and the National Veld and Forest Fire Act, 1998 (Act No. 101 of 1998), increase the motivation for the removal of woody invader species in a particular area because the invader plants are decreasing the country’s water reserves and increasing plant biomass in areas, thus also increasing fire risk.

Implementation of the programme

To implement a large programme such as Working for Water, a strong, clear and effective plan of action is needed with policies, protocols and standard operating procedures. This is also a dynamic exercise, because circumstances in different areas as well as practical experience result in more effective procedures. The programme offers a work flow for implementation and outlines its policy for clearing land and a herbicide policy. Standardized documents provide for the different aspects of the implementation programme. For the implementing agent, these include general conditions for Working for Water funding, guidelines for emerging contractors, procurement conditions, training guidelines, invoice information, a management plan with spreadsheets for key performance indicators and spreadsheet records for training and social development of workers.

A project cycle has been developed that will ease the implementation process and the closing and revisiting or follow-up. First a national strategic plan is developed, then regional strategic plans. Medium-term planning on a small-area basis follows with the implementation of an environmental impact assessment in the particular area, estimating the impact of the invader species, plus the removal of it. Annual plans for removal projects in the area are prepared and land owner agreement is obtained. The removal of invader species takes place under the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act after a task assessment has been done and a contract issued. The process is monitored by Working for Water and the work inspected before payment is awarded. The whole process is captured on a database for future ease of reference.

The implementation of biological control is different because it is mostly initiated as a result of research by the Plant Protection Research Institute and is then included in other existing or planned programmes. The Agricultural Research Council developed an implementation plan in which a biological control implementation Officer coordinates the mass breeding and release of biocontrol organisms in different areas across the country; six regional biological control implementation Officers were also appointed and incorporated with existing Working for Water projects.

Fig. 2: The stem-boring weevil Neodiplogrammus quadrivittatus (right) is used for the biological control of Sesbania punicea.

Stefan Neser (Sesbania), Rolf Oberprieler (Neodiplogrammus), Agricultural Research Council/PPRI

To start the mass rearing of biocontrol organisms, the researchers brief the implementation Officers on the biology of the agent, supply them with starter cultures and supply information and photos for a brochure about the biocontrol agent. The researchers also are involved with the releases and with post-release monitoring. The biological control implementation Officers mass rear the agents, release agents in cooperation with researchers, monitor for establishment in cooperation with researchers and produce information brochures for distribution. After release, redistribution of biocontrol organisms is often needed so it is important to ensure that there is enough material to redistribute. Biocontrol organisms for distribution are sourced not only from the mass rearing in regional centres, on potted plants in shade houses and in insectaries, but also from field collection on sites of previous releases. Field collection takes place seasonally on large woody trees especially for seed feeding organisms. Insects that lay their eggs on immature fruit or seeds of large woody trees can not be mass reared in laboratories. For example, the seed weevil, Melanterius maculatus, which is used as a biocontrol agent for black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) needs to be field collected to ensure enough material for redistribution on other areas.

During 2000 - 2002, the biological control implementation programme in South Africa distributed around 12.6 million individuals of 30 species of biological control agents. Some of these agents, such as the sesbania stem-boring weevil (Neodiplogrammus quadrivittatus) on Sesbania punicea (figure 2), can be sustained in nature for collecting in biological control reserves. The Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, as previously mentioned, makes provision for that. It protects registered biological control reserves from clearing.


Working for Water has established and maintains a research unit as part of its commitment to the sound management of invasive alien plants. The research carried out by this unit has formed an integral part of the development of the Working for Water programme since its inception in 1995. There are research review panels for each of five research themes. Members of the research review panels are drawn from government and non-government organizations. They play an advisory role to the unit and ensure that the research commissioned remains credible and provides optimum returns on investment.

The five research themes coordinated by the research unit are:

Sustainable development

One of the objectives of the Working for Water programme is the sustainable development of projects and people. A primary function of the invading alien clearing programme is the eradication of poverty through the creation of short-term contract job opportunities. Skills development, income generation, improved nutrition and raised education levels (as households are able to support children at school) are examples of social upgrading of communities. Access to sexual and reproductive health services and access to alternative livelihood opportunities (such as nature-based tourism and local catering and other support services) are additional programmes.

The protection and rehabilitation of indigenous ecosystems is also an important part of the programme. Working for Water works at a national level to raise public awareness and with local communities and stakeholders to focus on the conservation of natural systems. Examples of this work are the clearance of invading alien plants enabling local communities to develop agricultural initiatives in a sound manner and encouragement of community forestry initiatives to manage invasive alien plants to protect indigenous forests and woodlands and to prevent their unsustainable harvesting. A secondary industry development programme develops initiatives to clear invading alien plants and engage in planting alternative species that can be harvested at sustainable levels. Working for Water encourages and supports sustainable commercial forestry management practices by working closely with the forestry industry to ensure that the commercially viable forestry species do not spread beyond their planting areas.

Other key components of the programme

Other elements of the Working for Water programme include education and training, secondary industries, community development, child care and sex education.

Education and training

The programme has launched an education and training campaign to generate awareness of the issues. Education is one of the keys to the long-term success of the Working for Water programme. Levels of awareness among landowners, nursery wholesalers and retailers and the general public around the threats and impacts posed by invading alien plants need to be enhanced. Responsible land management will stem only from an understanding of the severity of the impacts of invading alien plants.

Currently the programme invests approximately ten percent of its total budget into skills training and development programmes. Training focuses on skills to do the programme work according to the technical specifications, for example, through induction training and contractor development training programmes. Basic skills, such as health and safety, first aid and fire fighting skills, are helping workers in their search for more permanent employment (Working for Water, 2001).

The training programme also includes a large component of life-skills programmes, such as personal finance management, literacy and numeric skills and obtaining drivers’ licences. At management level, the training and development programmes encourage staff to start academic programmes in the related technical fields.

Secondary industries

The development of viable secondary industries, such as the production of charcoal from invader wood and furniture production, is a critical component of the Working for Water programme, and has been shown to offer significant potential for job creation and to generate the funding necessary to ensure that the programme is able to sustain itself over a 20-year period. The secondary industry work relates not only to the use of the wood but also to the use of the water, productive land and trained people (Dingela and van Staden, 2000; Working for Water, 2001).

Community development

One of the exceptional aspects of the programme with regard to community development is the extent that it offers opportunities for women, the youth and the disabled. In 2000/01, of 23 998 people employed in the programme, 54 percent of the workers were women and 26 percent were youths. Some 70 660 hectares of invading alien plants were cleared, follow-up clearing was undertaken for 180 736 hectares, 20 wetlands underwent rehabilitation work and there were 313 projects across all nine provinces. In 1999/2000, there were 884 emerging contractors, 14 percent as collectives and 85 percent as individual entrepreneurs. Of the individual entrepreneurs, 33 percent were women, 10 percent were youth, and 98 percent were black and previously unemployed. A total of 134 718 training days were provided, 56 percent of the training targeted at women and 39 percent at youth (Working for Water, 2000, 2001).

Child care

Child care remains a cornerstone of the programme’s commitment to social development in the communities in which it works. Many of the newly employed workers were unemployed in the past and child care facilities needed to be developed. The Department of Welfare has played its part in this commitment.

Sex education

Working for Water management has identified HIV/AIDS awareness as one of the most critical social projects. All regional teams need to ensure that managers publicly declare support for HIV/AIDS awareness programmes, that regional managers forge partnerships with the Department of Health, non-governmental organizations and local support networks, and that peer educators are trained in every region to raise awareness. Every project must distribute condoms weekly, hold at least one 60-minute awareness session every quarter for every worker and participate in World Aids Day activities on 1 December (Magadlela, 2000).


The Working for Water programme is one of the most holistic programmes running in the world, bringing together thousands of people (as individuals, industries and government departments) to work for the same goal. It has achieved 25 internationally acclaimed awards since 1995. Most importantly, however, it has made a difference in people’s lives and the environment in which they live.

It is little wonder that Working for Water is regarded by Dr Hal Mooney, founding chair of Global Invasive Species Programme, as a model for the world of an innovative way to deal with the invasive species problem and that Nelson Mandela is the Patron in Chief.


The author acknowledges personal consultation with the following people in preparation of this paper: Hélette Prinsloo (Land Use and Soil Management), Hildegard Klein (Plant Protection Research Institute, Rietondale), Fiona Impson (Plant Protection Research Institute, Stellenbosch) and Simone Noemdoe (Working for Water).


Dingela, S. & van Staden, A., eds. 2000. Workshop: Utilisation of invaders for secondary industries. In G. Preston, G. Brown and E. van Wyk, eds. Best management practices for preventing and controlling invasive alien species, pp. 158 - 159. (Proceedings of a symposium, Cape Town, South Africa, 22 - 24 February 2000.) Cape Town, South Africa, Working for Water programme. 316 pp.

Government Gazette [of the Republic of South Africa]. 2001. Amendments to the Conservation of Agricultural Resources Act, 1983 (Act No. 43 of 1983). Government Gazette, 429 (22166) of 30 March 2001. Department of Agriculture, Republic of South Africa.

Magadlela, D. 2000. Social challenges in the Working for Water programme: Findings from a study of selected projects. In G. Preston, G. Brown and E. van Wyk, eds. Best management practices for preventing and controlling invasive alien species, pp. 198 - 204. (Proceedings of a symposium, Cape Town, South Africa, 22 - 24 February 2000.) Cape Town, South Africa, Working for Water programme. 316 pp.

Working for Water. 2000. The Working for Water programme annual report 1999/2000. Cape Town, South Africa, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (available at

Working for Water. 2001. The Working for Water programme annual report 2000/2001. Cape Town, South Africa, Department of Water Affairs and Forestry.

Zimmerman, H. & Klein, H. 2000. The use of biological control agents for the control of plant invaders and the importance of partnerships. In G. Preston, G. Brown & E. van Wyk, eds. Best management practices for preventing and controlling invasive alien species, pp. 130-138. (Proceedings of a symposium, Cape Town, South Africa, 22 - 24 February 2000.) Cape Town, South Africa, Working for Water programme. 316 pp.

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