River swallowed by invasive plant

The Vaal River Plague is spreading along South Africa’s vital waterway. Water lettuce, while attractive, forms suffocating blankets that stifle water use and pose ecological threats. The cause of this invasive weed’s explosion? Years of unchecked pollution.

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How Pollution Fuels the Vaal River Plague

Water lettuce capitalizes on a toxic cocktail of sewage and chemical runoff.

“The plant thrives in systems that have high levels of nitrate and phosphates, which are usually associated with pollution,” explains Dr. Julie Coetzee of Rhodes University Centre for Biological Control. Warm water adds further fuel for this disastrous growth.

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The Department of Water and Sanitation (DWS) points to failing wastewater plants as a primary culprit.

DWS spokesperson Wisane Mavasa vows: “The department is also taking enforcement measures to hold the municipalities responsible for the pollution accountable.”

Fighting the Vaal River Plague: Beetles Join the Battle

While pollution reduction is vital, herbicides and a surprising ally may buy precious time. Biological control experts use ‘water weevils’, beetles that devour the plants from within. This targeted approach aims to lessen sudden ecosystem shocks.

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Frustration simmers among residents on the frontlines of the Vaal River Plague. Long-time Vaal River resident Brent Gericke notes, “Even when there was a response, there was no sense of urgency.”

Can the Plague Ever be Defeated?

Realistically, completely exterminating water lettuce may be impossible. Yet, experts hope to achieve a new balance using beetles alongside pollution controls. A multifaceted approach is essential for the long haul.

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“Rand Water has been appointed…to assist with addressing the failing wastewater infrastructure…” states Mavasa. A cleaner Vaal River Plague not only protects drinking water but the whole river ecosystem.


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