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'Moving Alexandra squatters good for environment'

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afrol.com, 20 February - Last week about 100 families were removed by armed men from their shacks perched on the degraded banks of the Jukskei River in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg. This was condemned as "apartheid-style forced removals" and hit the international headlines. "Perhaps the methods used were not ideal" environmentalists confess, but both Gauteng's MEC for Environment and the Rennies Wetlands Project agree that the shacks along the Jukskei river had to go. Community groups and unions do not agree.

In a statement by the Rennies Wetlands Project it is claimed that the important environmental and health reasons for moving people off the riverbank "was completely ignored in the heated coverage". Environmentalists, who have been warning people about the degradation of the Jukskei River for the past decade, silently acknowledged that though the means were questionable the end was not - a long overdue move for the river's reprieve.

- The plight of displaced people is not to be minimised but their shacks and latrines have contributed to the ongoing erosion of the Jukskei's banks which has in turn intensified the damage caused by the almost annual floods, says David Lindley, national co-ordinator of the non-government Rennies Wetlands Project (RWP). "And with cholera cases now numbering nearly 50 000 countrywide, experts' warnings that pit latrines releasing raw human waste into the river on a daily basis is a health time bomb are also proving to be correct."

The removals were carried out by Gauteng's Department of Housing as part of a larger process to rehabilitate Alexandra Township, which has been described as both "unsanitary" and "ungovernable". The squatters, however, protested against their removal from one unsanitary site to another, which neither has water or toilets. Some may have to live in tents for months until new houses are constructed. 

Although it appeared that the cholera in the river was the main reason for relocating people, environmentalists claim the process in fact began in November 1999 when the floods washed away many of the shacks and resulted in great hardship for the Jukskei squatters. "Each time it floods it destroys people's homes, and coupled with the cholera in the water, makes living at the river's edge bad for the people as well as the river," Lindley points out.

Gauteng's Housing Department obtained R10 million from the Emergency Flood Relief fund in October last year and set about using the money to obtain alternative accommodation for the shack dwellers. People were grouped into those who qualified for government housing (married people and those with dependents) and those who did not (single people with no dependents).

- We started registering people along the Jukskei in November last year for housing subsidies, explains Carien Englebrecht, chief director, housing tenure and asset management for the Gauteng Department of Housing. "We went from shack to shack explaining that people had to be moved because of the continual flooding and unsanitary conditions, and we helped them fill in subsidy applications. Finding alternative land was a real challenge since nobody wanted an influx of displaced people - Diepsloot and Dobsonville were the only sites available."

- The move to relocate the Jukskei shack dwellers was absolutely environmentally correct, says Mary Metcalfe, Gauteng's MEC for Agriculture, Conservation, Environment and Land Affairs. "Cholera is a growing problem, and in any case, the riverbanks are not suitable for housing because of their flood attenuation function. The banks are going to be reclaimed as part of a broader regeneration of Alexandra in which environmental components including public open space, sanitation and solid waste removal will be central."

- We applaud the courage shown by the provincial government in taking an unpopular but environmentally important decision, says Lindley. "We commiserate with people who have suffered as a result of the removals but feel that nobody is acknowledging the critical health and environmental benefits of the relocation. Firstly, people have been removed from unsanitary and unsafe conditions. Their pit latrines seep raw human waste into the river daily. Children were playing in water which has become an ideal breeding ground for cholera and other infectious diseases."

- Secondly, riverbanks are wetlands which regulate water flow and with the shacks removed, this function can be restored, says Lindley. "Riverbanks cannot attenuate floods if they are denuded of vegetation and used for housing. We commend Gauteng's decision to go beyond simply removing the shacks to proactively rehabilitating the riverbanks because riparian vegetation is essential for stabilising the riverbanks. Vegetation also helps slow water flow and reduce erosion which are vital during times of flooding."

Engelbrecht adds that some shacks were built on top of an old rubbish dump, which is gradually subsiding. "Its an accident waiting to happen," she comments. "It's traumatic and unpleasant to be moved but we cannot allow people to continue living in such appalling conditions. We are going to convert the riverbanks into green open spaces, which people can use for recreation. This use will not interfere with the riverbank's flood attenuation function." 

- Although it's hard for the people now, in the long term the move is in their best interests, comments Lindley. "In fact moving people out of the one in 50 year flood line is for the greater social good. It's a basic environmental, indeed a common sense principle, that you don't develop within the one in 50 year flood line. If you do, you end up with the current Jukskei debacle - such bad riverbank degradation that floods are amplified tenfold because the water rages through wide, straight channels instead of flowing through a meandering river with sturdy riparian vegetation. We hope the rehabilitation of the Jukskei riverbanks sets the precedent for the rehabilitation of other flood prone rivers in urban areas."

Local community groups however do not agree, as the people will be relocated to areas with the same sanitation problems. They claim the residents have lived in the settlement for 20 years and they were not consulted over the move. As the Alexandra township lies close to one of Johannesburg's richest, white suburbs, those being moved away from the river rather feel that their are giving away their settlement to become a recreation area for the rich than being offered improved living standards themselves. Therefore, the council's behaviour has been compared to the old apartheid authorities, forcibly removing black communities from white areas.

Trade unions go further in their critics, saying the root causes behind the envirnmental mess at Jukskei river is the city council's unwillingnes to provide the poor with basic services. The cholera and sanitation crisis in Alexandra "has been created wholly by council's continual refusal to provide basic services and infrastructure for the people who have been living along the Jukskei River for several years," the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) stated earlier this month. 

- It is an embarassment that in the middle of a huge industrialised city, one of the giants of Africa, the bucket and nightsoil system is being used, the union claims. "It is well known that people forced to suffer the humiliation and inconvenience of not having access to running water and toilets are further degraded by having to empty nightsoil buckets into the river - their only water source; as Council does not collect the nightsoil buckets daily from all households."

Sources: SAMWU, Rennies Wetlands Project (through WildNet Africa) and afrol archives

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