Ecosystem Restoration for Watershed Health & Replenishment in Hops Growing Region of George, South Africa

Posted: August 26, 2021
Ecosystem Restoration for Watershed Health & Replenishment in Hops Growing Region of George, South Africa

More than just a key ingredient in our products, water is a critical resource for the health and well-being of every community around the world. As the world's leading brewer, we are committed to being a part of the solution to the growing water challenges across our communities and supply chain. Our goal is that by 2025, 100% of our communities in high-stress areas will have measurably improved water availability and quality. 

We know there is no single, one-size-fits all solution to building water resilience and security. To address the challenges specific to the local context, we have developed and implemented a comprehensive 7-step watershed management process at our sites located in water-stressed areas. The process focuses on convening stakeholders, identifying specific local water challenges and potential solutions, implementing agreed solutions with governance and financing mechanisms in place, communicating progress, and measuring impact. 

Our team at South African Breweries (SAB) has implemented this 7-step process in the hops growing region in George, South Africa in partnership with WWF to achieve measurable improvements to the watershed in this high-risk area.  

The Challenge 

The South-Western Cape area of George, South Africa is home to unique hydrological and geographical features that make it the only region in Africa suitable for growing hops, a key ingredient in brewing our flavorful beers. Growing hops is a water-intensive process requiring approximately 10,000 m3 of water per hectare each growing season.  The Outeniqua Mountains run parallel to the coast and form the Waboomskraal and Herold sub-catchments which regulate the availability of water—including rainfall, surface dams, and groundwater—needed for hop farming and other activities. The effects of climate change, such as changing rainfall patterns, and growing demands from agriculture and urban development, are putting pressure on water availability in this region. As temperatures continue to rise and fluctuate seasonally, hop farmers in this area are needing to adapt to conserve and sustainably manage the water.  

The presence of non-native vegetation in the Waboomskraal and Herold catchments is one of the leading threats to water security in the region. Invasive non-native vegetation such as hakea, pine, and black wattle consume 20%-60% more water than the indigenous species of the Cape Floral Kingdom. Fynbos is the smallest of the world's six floral kingdoms and while very rich in biodiversity, it faces many pressures such as land-use change and resource competition from invasive vegetation. The latter has the potential to reduce water availability by 40%, thus reducing water flows, aquifer recharge, and water available to farmers and the local community. 

A number of options were considered to improve water availability in the local context, such as shifting on-farm water use practices and improving infrastructure by fixing leaks and desilting dams. While these strategies are important, the team chose to focus its efforts on the removal of invasive non-native vegetation because of the significant potential benefit to businesses, local communities, and ecosystems.  

Learn more about water stewardship in the hops industry in South Africa here.

What We're Doing 

Since 2013, SAB and WWF have partnered with a range of organizations such as the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, the German Agency for International Cooperation, the South African Hops Growers Association, and the Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and Environment to help solve this growing challenge of invasive species in the George region. With active support and funding from the Natural Resource Management agency, the partners worked toward clearing riparian land of invasive species. The area also faces high levels of poverty, so the process was designed to help empower the local community by selecting, training, and equipping people to conduct the clearing to help restore the watershed. This initial engagement included a comprehensive analysis of the water risks and opportunities within a changing climate landscape (representing steps 1-3 in our watershed management process). 

To restore the natural processes of the area through the removal of non-native species, the project focused on creating biodiversity stewardship agreements. These efforts constitute steps 4-6 in our watershed management process through active watershed project implementation, collective governance, finance, and strategic communication with stakeholders.  

Measuring Impact

Our 2025 Water Stewardship goal is focused on measurable improvement in water quality and availability. Through this project, George is one of the sites that has reached step 7 with measurable impacts, including the number of hectares cleared and subsequent water released to the watershed, which was quantified using an estimation methodology.  

Specifically, from 2011-2021 the project achieved the following, with SAB providing about 33% of the total funding for these initiatives: 

•   Invasive species clearing: 1275 hectares of initial clearing, including 200 hectares with two initial clearings due to fire regrowth, and 1550 hectares of follow-up clearing (since some hectares of initial clearing have undergone more than one follow-up cleaning)

•   Water saved: estimated to be approximately 9 billion liters per year, based on total clearing achieve

•   Active restoration: new restoration techniques piloted on 20 hectares of riparian land, proving that the local fynbos naturally restores itself when enabled to do so

•   Community impact: estimated 36,000 person-days of employment  

Through this work, we developed not only a sound understanding of the technologies available in forest management practices but also clarity on which are economically feasible to use. Turning the cleared vegetation into eco-charcoal or mulch resulted in a renewable fuel source, while the installation of groundwater loggers turned out to be challenging to sustain on a cost-effective basis. The project also demonstrated the benefits of irrigation technology such as microjets, drip irrigation, and soil moisture probes. Finally, with the removal of invasive species, mountain fynbos and other native vegetation began to flourish, supporting biodiversity in the region. 

Along with measurable environmental benefits, this project impacted communities on a social level as well. Hop farmers were trained on a variety of irrigation techniques and members of the community who were previously unemployed were able to develop valuable and empowering skills.   

Looking Ahead 

Upkeep of the cleared land in the Waboomskraal and Herold catchments of the Outeniqua Mountains is critical to the future of water security in George. This project saved valuable water through the removal of invasive trees, and by continuing to keep the land cleared of those species, it is estimated that roughly 9 billion liters of water will be saved annually. In addition to implementing green infrastructure, this project employed, trained, and equipped local people and farmers to protect, conserve, and steward their watershed.  

We are continuing to promote and encourage water stewardship from local landowners and stakeholders in George, South Africa. Through our actions, we are optimizing water use efficiency for hops farms and thus helping to build a more climate-resilient future in the region. We are exploring opportunities to build on the local efforts towards a regional approach and as well as the potential for establishing a water source partnership to improve water governance and a well-managed landscape.   

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