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Working for Water (WfW) programme

Introduction and background

Invasive alien species are plants, animals and microbes that are introduced into countries, and then out-compete the indigenous species.Invasive alien species are causing billions of rands of damage to South Africa’s economy every year, and are the single biggest threat to the country’s biological biodiversity.

Invasive alien plants (IAPs) pose a direct threat not only to South Africa’s biological diversity, but also to water security, the ecological functioning of natural systems and the productive use of land. They intensify the impact of fires and floods and increase soil erosion. IAPs can divert enormous amounts of water from more productive uses and invasive aquatic plants, such as the water hyacinth, effect agriculture, fisheries, transport, recreation and water supply.

Of the estimated 9000 plants introduced to this country, 198 are currently classified as being invasive. It is estimated that these plants cover about 10% of the country and the problem is growing at an exponential rate.


The fight against invasive alien plants is spearheaded by the Working for Water (WfW) programme, launched in 1995 and administered previously through the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry and now the Department of Environmental Affairs. This programme works in partnership with local communities, to whom it provides jobs, and also with Government departments including the Departments of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Agriculture, and Trade and Industry, provincial departments of agriculture, conservation and environment, research foundations and private companies.

Since its inception in 1995, the programme has cleared more than one million hectares of invasive alien plants providing jobs and training to approximately 20 000 people from among the most marginalized sectors of society per annum. Of these, 52% are women.

WfW currently runs over 300 projects in all nine of South Africa’s provinces. Scientists and field workers use a range of methods to control invasive alien plants. These include:

  • Mechanical methods - felling, removing or burning invading alien plants.
  • Chemical methods - using environmentally safe herbicides.
  • Biological control - using species-specific insects and diseases from the alien plant’s country of origin. To date 76 bio-control agents have been released in South Africa against 40 weed species.
  • Integrated control - combinations of the above three approaches. Often an integrated approach is required in order to prevent enormous impacts.

The programme is globally recognised as one of the most outstanding environmental conservation initiatives on the continent. It enjoys sustained political support for its job creation efforts and the fight against poverty.

WfW considers the development of people as an essential element of environmental conservation. Short-term contracts jobs created through the clearing activities are undertaken, with the emphasis on endeavouring to recruit women (the target is 60%), youth (20%) and disabled (5%). Creating an enabling environment for skills training, it is investing in the development of communities wherever it works. Implementing HIV and Aids projects and other socio- development initiatives are important objectives.

Aims and objectives


  • To reduce the density of established, terrestrial, invasive alien plants, through labour intensive, mechanical and chemical control, by 22% per annum.

Working for water aims to improve the integrity of natural resources by:

  • Preventing new and emerging invasive alien plant problems through:-
    • Strategies to prevent new and emerging weeds
    • An early detection rapid response system
    • A monitoring and evaluation framework to assess the progress of the emerging invasive alien plant management effort
    • Partnering with and tapping into the expertise and resources of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)
    • The establishment of national and regional invasive alien plant co-ordinating committees
    • The implementation of an appropriate data management system for new emerging species.
  • Reducing the impact of existing priority invasive alien plants through:-
    • The quantification of the extent of invasive alien plant survey.
    • The development of prioritisation frameworks
    • The development of best management practice informed by applied research
    • The development of management unit clearing programmes, annual plans of operations and business plans
    • Monthly key performance indicator reports, quarterly Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) reports and self-assessment
    • The development and implementation of a monitoring and evaluation framework to assess progress of the invasive alien plant management effort
    • The establishment of a national and regional oversight committee
    • The implementation of an appropriate data management system for new and emerging species
  • Enhancing capacity and commitment to solve invasive alien plant problems through:-
    • The development of a combined environmental implementation and management plan
    • The establishment of a skills development programme
    • Co-ordinating policy, legislative and planning frameworks (national and international)
    • Implementing an advocacy and awareness strategy

Project categories

Alien invasive plants

Any control programme for alien vegetation must include the following 3 phases:

  • Initial control: drastic reduction of existing population
  • Follow-up control: control of seedlings, root suckers and coppice growth
  • Maintenance control: sustain low alien plant numbers with annual control



Biological control is an attempt to introduce the plant’s natural enemies to its new habitat, with the assumption that these natural enemies will remove the plant’s competitive advantage until its vigour is reduced to a level comparable to that of the natural vegetation. Natural enemies that are used for biological control are called biocontrol agents. In the control of invasive plants, the biocontrol agents used most frequently are insects, mites and pathogens (disease-causing organisms such as fungi). Biocontrol agents target specific plant organs, such as the vegetative parts of the plant (its leaves, stems or roots) or the reproductive parts (flowers, fruits or seeds).

Social development

Social development is an integral part of Working for Water, affecting all operations of the programme. The Social Development thrust is aimed principally at poverty relief, but it also seeks to optimise benefits in general. 

Value added industrues

Working for Water has embarked on a programme to contribute to the sustainable management and control of invasive species, and to add value to the clearing operations. A programme promoting the utilization of biomass from clearing operations was researched since 1998, 1st at a very limited scale but since 2002 the programme was expanded substantially.

Lead Teacher Project

The Working for Water Programme (WfW) initiated the first National Teachers Conference (now known as the National Environmental Education Teachers' Conference) 2009. The success of the teacher’s conference led to embarking on a Partnership Project with the Department of Education provincially as well as nationally. The Lead Teacher Project is one of the “Spin Offs” of the National Teachers’ Conference of 2009.

Wetlands project

The projects include national priority wetlands (including existing and proposed Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance). The employment created from implementing these projects ranged over 2000 people during the 2000/01 financial year. Most of these projects since 2000/1were considered to be highly successful, judging by the immediate response of the wetlands and the amount of sediment trapped by erosion control structures within only a few months after construction. 

Outdoor Learning Centre

In finding ways of reaching these communities the WfW entered into discussions with Cape Nature who runs an “Outdoor Learning Centre” at its Witfontein Nature Reserve outside George in the Western Cape. The reserve has been running “outdoor environmental classes” for a while but with limited resources. 

Related events

WeedBuster Week campaign

The South African WeedBuster Week represents the annual culmination and highlight of the ongoing campaign aimed at the management and containment of invasive alien plants. The campaign is an initiative led by the Department of Environmental Affairs through the Environmental Programmes branch, and supported by various partners and stakeholders. 


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