Midlands Conservancies Forum nominated Penny Rees – the intrepid River Walker and environmental activist – for the Eco-Logic Awards this year. She did not win the title Eco-Warrior, but we are adamant that she should have.
Penny has lived beside some of Africa’s most famous rivers Timbavati, Limpopo, uMkhomazi, and now the uMngeni. She first met the uMngeni River as a young intern at WESSA’s Umgeni Valley Reserve in the 1980’s. When she returned to run their Environmental Education Programme a few years ago, she observed a marked decline in river health.
Her concern led her to DUCT (the Duzi uMngeni Conservation Trust), whose mission is to champion the health of our rivers. She soon became an integral part of the team, monitoring the uMngeni River and submitting comments on development proposals. This is the river that works the hardest in our province of KZN and is suffering as a result. She started to dream about a walk from Source to Sea and developed an action plan to make this a reality.
During May 2012, Penny lead a team of volunteers to walk 311 kms from uMngeni Vlei to Blue Lagoon in order to raise public awareness about the plight of the uMngeni river. This captured the public’s imagination as daily updates were posted on their blog. Judy Bell, Chair, Midlands Conservancies Forum (MCF) said: “Most of us fear to dream so big, let alone work to realise the dreams to do more for the environment, but Penny did so courageously. The awareness raised has been invaluable to all those doing their bit to improve our planet’s ecosystems. She has done us all proud.”
The walk not only highlighted the plight of this important source of water, but gathered data that is being used extensively by other organisations working to protect water and other ecosystems that are our life support systems. Penny compiled a comprehensive report which included 26 miniSASS scores, all the negative impacts (invasive vegetation, erosion, poor farming practices and pollution) and recommended tourist trails along the river banks to improve surveillance and monitoring.
“Interest and enthusiasm for this sort of initiative has spread widely, illustrating what committed and keen individuals can do to make a difference, showing landowners how they can better manage these precious systems and influencing the way authorities are viewing our water resources. Data gathered has illustrated the greatest pressures on these systems. This work could, and is hoped will, become a national initiative undertaken by committed and caring citizens around the country.” Dr Mark Graham Groundtruth
Penny is admired by her peers and environmental organisations for the very important work she does, contributing to the understanding of how theory and reality intersect. “Penny’s commitment is passionate and, impressively, much of her effort is voluntary. Her findings have been a wake-up call and have truly set a benchmark.” Barry Downard, Dargle Conservancy.
During the epic uMngeni walk, Penny realised that the many tributaries have an enormous impact on water quality. Since then, she has explored the Lions and Dargle Rivers and plans to do the Indezi in September and Mpofana in October 2014. Penny is always willing to share her knowledge and has presented numerous illustrated talks, gently pointing fingers at wrong-doers and suggesting remedial action. She hosts regular water workshops in streams and rivers to teach the community how to conduct simple miniSASS tests to monitor river health.
Andrew Anderson, river bank landowner comments “Thank you for showing us that this is not only about the ‘science’ of a healthy river system but equally importantly it is about the people and communities that live along its course. Thank you for the encouragement your bold project is having in urging me to take up the challenge to protect it AND to find ways of engaging with government, on behalf of the millions of people who are indirectly dependent on the uMngeni and her tributaries, to support landowners in conserving and managing its integrity.”
Penny and her team have a dream of a world where everyone understands how essential rivers are for all life on our planet. Preven Chetty is a regular member of the River Walk team: “Penny has been a tireless coordinator and without her diplomatic organising, the team might have been thrown off properties long ago. I feel honoured to be a part of her team. Besides the important data collection, she brings a spiritual aspect with daily water blessings and communion with the rivers. Penny is a true eco-warrior.
Penny received two awards in recognition of her tireless efforts on behalf of our rivers – WESSA KZN’s Environmentalist of the Year and DUCT’s Chairman’s Award.
Kevan Zunckel of Zunckel Ecological & Environmental Services, who compiled the uMgungundlovu Municipal District’s Strategic Environmental Assessment, says “It is interesting to consider the difference in impact between the walks that Penny does and the water quality sampling of an institution like Umgeni Water. We get regular monthly reports based on the latter, all showing the seriousness of the situation, and yet nothing is done. These reports are received by many and yet it’s a bit like the frog in the boiling water. However, with the River Walks there is a far greater personal angle to the outcomes, as well as the fact that the water quality sampling is done as part of the walk and is therefore directly linked to what they observe as they walk down river. For me the most valuable insight to come out of the uMngeni walk was the ability of the river to “heal itself” as a direct result of riparian restoration work. It is on the basis of this finding that I calculated the possibility of being able to restore the entire length of the uMngeni River’s main stem for 10% of Durban Water’s monthly water treatment spend. I believe that this estimate played a pivotal role in persuading the Water Service Authorities and other key stakeholders to join the uMngeni Ecological Infrastructure Partnership. These walks play an important role in catalysing action towards the restoration and better management of our catchments. I encourage the key role players in the catchments to follow Penny’s example and put as much energy and passion into their legal responsibilities.”
Penny’s connection to the rivers is a creative and spiritual one which compliments her environmental drive and pursuit of scientific data perfectly. At the end of the uMngeni walk she commented. “Here Mama River is an old lady – after a lifetime of nurturing and unconditional giving, she barely remembers her journey that started gently in the folds of distant hills. A life which began with sparkling, bubbling energetic youth, turned sour from abuse and hurt. If only we could all give back to her as she has given to us.”
Peter Tompson, Chair of Upper uMngeni Catchment Management Forum concludes: “Penny is a remarkable lady. She has been passionate about environmental conservation all her life, much of which has been spent in passing on her broad knowledge to others. Her passion is, however, well-grounded in pragmatism and good sense, which makes her all the more credible.”
It is clear from this submission the esteem in which Penny is held. We believe she has more than earned the title of Eco-Warrior for the impressive contribution she has made to protect the ecosystems on which over 5 million people in KZN rely on a daily basis.
“He who hears the rippling of rivers in these degenerate days will not utterly despair.” Henry David Thoreau