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The value of water
Published: 15/01/2020

Flowing along the foothills of Papegaaiberg in Stellenbosch, the Plankenbrug River runs close to an informal settlement where more than 5500 inhabitants have access to only 150 communal toilets and 57 taps. 

Without adequate water and sanitation services it is not only the people living in Enkanini that are suffering, but also the nearby river. This is why Dr Leanne Seeliger could not sit idly. As a senior research and specialist in environmental ethics at the Stellenbosch University (SU) Water Institute, her research ethos is about impact and effecting change, as quickly as possible. And this is where the educational environmental course Iqhawe Lemvelo (nature hero) comes in. After completing this course, one of the life skills pupils will have is how to handle water and waste in their respective households in informal settlements. 

The course is indeed unique in that it addresses issues that children in informal settlements face daily. As part of the education leg of the Amanzi Yimpilo Project (water is health), a collaborative partnership between the SU Water Institute and the Stellenbosch Municipality, this course aims to initiate community support and collaboration in order to improve water and sanitation services in the community.


Over the past seven years, Leanne has been working in Enkanini, an informal settlement that emerged in 2006 when 47 families broke through a fence from the adjacent Kayamandi township and invaded a piece of land zoned for agriculture. Hence the name “Enkanini", meaning “taken by force". It was only six years later, in 2012, that Enkanini received communal taps and toilets. “Informal is the new normal. Municipalities need to be flexible, creative and innovative in order to deal constructively with informality," she explains. “Until these settlements receive proper water and sanitation services, we will lose the battle to save many of our rivers and ecosystems. This is not only a socio-ecological problem; it has major ramifications in terms of agriculture, food production and general health," she warns. 

Earlier this year, Leanne jumped at the opportunity to put theory into practice when the Stellenbosch Municipality asked for assistance with improving water and sanitation services in Enkanini. The result is the Amanzi Yimpilo Project. Because it is based on the principle of transformative governance, Leanne involves both the community and the municipality in finding solutions. The project includes training workshops for local residents, two water ethics surveys, an environmental education project, and the development of a water monitoring application.


Working closely with Paul Roviss Khambule, a social entrepreneur from Kayamandi, they identified and trained a couple of Enkanini residents as co-researchers. Earlier this year, this team surveyed nearly 800 households, trying to understand how they relate to water and sanitation. Another unique aspect of the project is that the team members are employed by the Government's Extended Public Works Programme for the duration of the project. Paul says the survey has already done much to raise awareness in the community. “It is not just about the University coming in and doing research. It is about making the community understand that their actions, such as throwing night soil and waste out onto the road, are harming the community and the environment."

The team also encourages the community to report blockages directly to the municipality's Let's Fixit line, from where the issue is immediately directed to the relevant department. “On the ground, therefore, dialogue and a more flexible relationship is starting to develop between Enkanini residents and the municipality, with a major drive from the municipality's side to improve water and sanitation infrastructure in the area," says Kamohelo Mculu, project manager with the municipality's Infrastructure Services Division. 

Beyond the immediate concerns of the community and the Plankenbrug River, Leanne is most concerned about the children. This is why, seven years ago, she and a group of concerned citizens worked with the Stellenbosch Municipality to start an environmental education centre in the settlement. Located in two Wendy houses high up on the slopes of Papegaaiberg, the Enkanini Education Centre houses a local crèche and now also serves as the venue for the project's education programme, Iqhawe Lemvelo.


“Learners from informal settlements are often disadvantaged by a school system that does not cater for their specific needs. We designed a programme to help them to deal with their lives right here and right now. “This is a place-based approach that enables them to learn from their own lived experience," Leanne explains.

She developed the approach with Prof Chris Reddy from SU's Faculty of Education, and the curriculum covers topics such as dealing with water and recycling waste in your household and community. And while this researcher is well-known in the community for her no-nonsense attitude and pragmatic approach to tackling deeply complex problems, she chokes up when speaking about the harsh realities of poverty and inequality and how it affects children in the informal settlement. 

“My daughter has me, and I can give her all these opportunities. What about the parents who are not able to do the same for their children? It brings me to tears every time I think about it." Ultimately, she believes one cannot put a value on nature: “We cannot take nature for granted. It has intrinsic value in and of itself." And that is why she is a trailblazer for finding new ways to engage with civil society, industry and local government to restore not only the ecological integrity of the Plankenbrug River, but also the dignity of the children playing along its riverbanks.


The Amanzi Yimpilo Project (water is health) is an outcome of the Rector and Executive Mayor's Forum, a joint structure that facilitates collaboration between SU and Stellenbosch Municipality to the benefit of the entire town and community. The aim of the project is to research the challenges around water, waste and sanitation services in the community, and how to improve it.

Published in the Matieland. Read more