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National River Health Programme
Provincial plan for Mpumalanga
In this article, Dr Dirk Roux of Environmentek, CSIR, discusses the current implementation plan developed for Mpumalanga as a case study and model within the context of the national River Health Programme (RHP)
The following article was published in the SA Waterbulletin 26 (4)
The South African River Health Programme (RHP)
Scenario for Sustainable Implementation

The Mpumalanga case study

Background to RHP and Mpumalanga pilot project
The design of the National River Health Programme (RHP) was initiated by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF) in 1994. The main purpose for the programme is to serve as a source of information regarding the ecological condition, or integrity, of river ecosystems in South Africa. The programme primarily makes use of indices for measuring biological and habitat integrity to enable an integrated assessment of the condition of the river as a whole.

A model of shared ownership was advocated during the design phases of the programme, to ensure that a critical level of institutional participation is achieved. Subsequently, the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) and the Water Research Commission (WRC), together with the DWAF, became joint national custodians of the programme. At a provincial and local level, Provincial Champions and Provincial Implementation Teams (PITs) became responsible for implementation intiatives.

Figure 1: Scenarios for RHP implementation.


The WRC supported a pilot-scale implementation project from 1997 to 1999. The aims of the project were to:
  • allow testing and refinement of programme componenets;
  • allow integration of programme components;
  • facilitate the identification of additional developments that may be required;
  • demonstrate the worth of the programme; and
  • provide broad guidelines to facilitate the eventual implementation and maintenance of the programme
  • This pilot project focused on the main rivers of Mpumalanga, namely the Crocodile,Sabie and Olifants Rivers. A number of new concepts, tools and processes were developed during the project. A further outcome was an improved understanding of the practical and operational factors that influence the sustainable implementation of the RHP. Based on the knowledge and insights that were gained, basic implementation scenarios were derived and an implementation plan was compiled for Mpumalanga.

    Implementation Scenarios

    Two main factors were considered for deriving basic implementation scenarios. These are scientific soundness and technical relevance of the RHP, and the degree to which the programme addresses and satisfies stakeholder needs (Figure 1).

  • Scenario 1: Regression sets in
    If both the scientific/technical credibility and the value that the RHP presents to its stakeholders are low, then the RHP has no future. However, this scenario is very unlikely as the philosophical foundation and the tools and methods of the RHP have been built on sound scientific principles. Also, stakeholder requirements were always considered primary guiding factors during the design phases of the RHP.
  • Scenario 2: Scientific excellence but dwindling support base
    The RHP is recognised for its scientific and technical excellence, butstakeholders are not really experiencing the value of the programme. Too little resources and attention are directed to understanding and satisfying the needs of the non-technical stakeholder community. These end users of river health information lose their enthusiasm for the RHP abd redirect their support to other initiatives that show better promise of addressing their needs.
  • Scenario 3: Stakeholder satisfaction short-lived
    Scenario 3 represents a future where all attempts are made to understand and satisfy stakeholder needs but insufficient resources are allocated to technical development and improvement. Initial support by stakeholders is replaced by scepticism as the gaps in the programme's science-base become evident. The end result is very similar to that of scenario 2.
  • Scenario 4: Contribute to strategic and adaptive management of river ecosystems
    The influencing factors of adding real value to stakeholder needs while remaining technically and scientifically relevant are recognised and pursued with sufficient resources. As a result, the various stakeholder segments (natural resource managers, private sector, relevant politicians, public at large) are satisfied and supportive of the programme and the scientific credibility of the RHP is demonstrated through appropriate research and application outputs. This scenario is characterised by constant interction between scientists, managers and policy makers, the aims of which are to:
  • facilitate reconciliation of perspectives,
  • develop a deep understanding of each other's needs and limitations,
  • learn across disciplines and cultures,
  • adaptively improve over time to ensure continued scientific and managerial relevance.

    An implementation plan was compiled to guide the RHP initiative in Mpumalanga towards scenario 4 (Figure 1), and to ensure that the WRC funded pilot project would successfully mature into an internalised provincial operation. The implementation plan focuses on four issues that will be critical to this process, namely, purpose, tools and methods, networking, and capacity.


    A common purpose and direction must guide the agencies that will be responsible for implementing and maintaining the RHP in Mpumalanga. This common purpose and direction should be based on a shared vision and operational objectives for the provincial initiative.

    The vision that was formulated for Mpumalanga is "to maintain a model for the regional implementation of the RHP that serves as a national example".

    This vision implies adherence to the existing national objectives of the programme. However, the following provincial objectives were added:

  • Understand and satisfy the dynamic information needs of stakeholders: It is of critical importance to develop a deep understanding of the programme's stakeholder segmentation and the evolving information needs within each segment.
  • Achieve ongoing development and improvement of programme components: The technical composition of the RHP will have to continuously evolve and improve to effectively respond to improved understanding and changing needs.
  • Refine and optimise monitoring, assessment and reporting operations: Operational activities should improve in terms of overall efiiciency - complexity and cost must decrease and the expertise must be in place to make the implementation of the RHP a relatively simple and routine function.
  • Impact positively on the management of water resources: River health information must be creatively packaged and actively disseminated into arenas where decisions are made.
  • Demonstrate leadership: It is important to transfer new insights and knowledge gained within the province to the rest of the country. This can be achieved by regularly reporting on progress through the national coordination committee (NCC) and the existing communication mechanisms (e.g. newsletter) of the RHP.

    The suite of tools and methods that were initially adopted for the Mpumalanga study consisted of the Index of Habitat Integrity (IHI), the South African Scoring System (SASS) based on invertebrate organisms, the site-based Habitat Quality Index (HQI) (later substituted by the Integrated Habitat Assessment System (IHAS), the Fish Assemblage Integrity Index (FAII), and the Riparian Vegetation Index (RVI). The intention was, as a first priority, to master and effectively apply the above protocols. As a second priority, further indices could be incorporated once such indices are added to the pool of developed and tested products.
    The Mpumalanga initiative has followed an approach of learning-while-doing, especislly through actual surveys of the Crocodile, Sabie and Olifants Rivers. to ensure that the RHP goes beyond the collection of data and to facilitate ongoing learning and adoption, an "adaptive RHP implementation cycle" was developed (Figure 2). Effective implementation of the programme can only be claimed once each of the components in the cycle has been executed properly. The duration of each cycle should not be longer than 18 months, and the information dissemination component should preferably be completed within 12 months of data collection. New knowledge that may be acquired during an implementation cycle must be transferred and incorporated into the next cycle.

    Figure 2: Adpative implementation cycle for the RHP.


    The river systems dealt with in this pilot project are shared by three provinces: Mpumalanga, Northern Province and Gauteng. These systems can also be divided into two Water Management Areas, the Inkomati and the Olifants. Furthermore, at least ten institutions were involved with, or stakeholders of, biomonitoring activities in the Inkomati-Olifants region.

    A model of informal networking has evolved between participating individuals and institutions during the three year pilot project. This networking model should be extended by an across-the-board commitment from key implementation agents. However, in real life there are many real and perceived barriers that hamper effective co-operation in natural resource management.

    The concept of a "community-of-practice" (COP) is suggested as the mechanism for allowing mutually beneficial collaboration across boundaries. Essentially a COP is a group of people or institutions related by processes or needs, rather than by formal structural or functional relationships, to solve a common problem. Within such communities, people and organisations freely share their individual resources, knowledge and skills to enhance the speed and quality of the learning that takes place in the group.

    Figure 3: A community-of-practise for implementing the RHP at provincial scale.

    The COP suggested for Mpumalanga allows three distinct "positions" within the community that participants can occupy (Figure 3):
  • The guiding team essentially fulfills the leadership function and consists of the drivers or lead agents of the initiative. As a result these are also the relatively permanent members of the COP. In Mpumalanga this position will be populated by the Mpumalanga Parks Board (MPB), Kruger National Park (KNP) and the DWAF Regional Office. Catchment Management Agencies, once in operation, would substitute the current DWAF regional office on the guding team.
  • The strategic partners constitutes those individuals and organisations with whom a long-term relationship will be mutually advantageous. This includes relevant departments of provincial government, implementation agencies of neighbouring provinces, water authorities from neighbouring countries with whom river systems are shared, as well as universities and institutions partcipating in related long-term research programmes.
  • The tactical partners would have a relatively short residence time in the community, based on the requirement of specific expertise. These partners may be professional service providers or consultants and would typically be used where a temporary or long-term expertise-gap exists, for example in project coordination, selection of reference sites, management of data or compilation of a report.
  • As with "membership" of te COP, roles and responsibilities will be highly dynamic. However, the basic roles and responsibilities of the guiding team can be identified as the following:

  • Provide leadership in terms of the stated vision and operational objectives;
  • Ensure coordination within the network of participants through ongoing communication;
  • Plan opertaional activiities in detail and in advance;
  • Facilitate the execution of operational activities, including data collection, data capturing, health assessment, information dissemination and reflection;
  • Report to the National Coordinating Committee of the RHP, on a regular basis, regading activities and advances within the Mpumalanga COP.

    The pilot project has facilitated significant capacity building of human resources. Skills and technologies were actively transferred during the field surveys from the various specialists to the organisations constituting the Mpumalanga Guiding Team. Collectively, this Guiding Team is now self-sufficient regarding the technical expertise required to maintain the RHP. Human resource development is, however, an ongoing activity and each participating organisation should also assess its own staff profile.

    An assessment the current as well as desired competencies within each of the guiding team organisations is presented in Table 1. This simple competency assessment natrix can also be used to set career development and staff profiling goals, and to monitor progress regarding human resource development within an organisation.

    A three stage competency scale is used, where:

    Stage 1 - indicates that an organisation depends on assistance from outside to conduct the particular activity;

    Stage 2 - reflects an ability to execute the work independently;

    Stage 3 - implies that the organisation is providing national leadership in the particular field.

    Institution Competency Stage (current/desired)
    SASS FAII RVI IHI Data Management Reporting
    MPB 3/3 3/3 2/2 1/2 1/2
    KNP 2/2 3/3 1/2 2/2 1/2 2/2

    1/2 1/2 1/2 1/2 1/2 2/2
    *Only the Mpumalanga regional office is assessed, recognising that at a national level the DWAF enjoys Stage 3 competency in all the mentioned areas.
    Other capacity-related issues of importance are:

  • Ongoing maitenance, improvement and standardisation os sampling equipment;
  • Access to appropriate hardware and software to harness the potential of electronic information and communication technology. In this regard, the implementation of an electronic discussion group and an Extranet (that can be accessed and contributed to by a number of authorised organisations - as opposed to an Intranet) could prove to be valuable "connectors" of the members of a COP;
  • The Rivers Database is anticipated to become the primary data storage and management mechanism to be used at regional levels and each participating organisation should master the use of this system;
  • The use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology is most suited for presentation of river health information. Existing GIS capability and available presentaion templates should be used as a basis for expanding the provincial competency in reporting, and hence satisfying the information needs of stakeholders.
  • An estimation of the cost associated with maintaining the RHP provides a financial perspective and paves the way for alliances with funding partners. funds are required to ensure:
  • effective participation of strategic and tactical partners;
  • that appropriate equipment, harware and software can be obtaine;
  • that expenses for travel, accommodation and subsistence can be met;
  • personnel can attend training courses and engage in further education;
  • the ability to produce professional communication products (slides, brochures, posters, etc.).
    The formation and the formalisation of a Mpumalanga COP is still in an experimental stage. The implementation plan for Mpumalanga will only result in the desired outcome if all the relevant institutions accept joint responsibility, at both the technical and management levels, for implementing the RHP. It is recommended that this process be supported and facilitated from a national level to ensure that this model evolves into a practical arrangement for shared custodianship of the RHP with a view to further generic application in South Africa.

    For further enquiries and information please contact Dr Dirk Roux at Environmentek, CSIR on tel. (012) 841-2695 or: e-mail

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