Viability of investing in ecological infrastructure in South Africa’s water supply areas




ecological infrastructure, invasive alien plants, water security, ecosystem health, cost-effectiveness analysis


Ecological infrastructure (natural ecosystems that provide important services and save on built infrastructure costs) can have an important role in securing water supply, particularly in water-scarce areas, but this importance is not reflected in investment decisions, partly due to a lack of evidence. In South Africa, one of the main threats to water supply is the proliferation of woody invasive alien plants which significantly reduce stream flow and water yields. We used existing spatial data and estimates of the impact of woody invasive plants on flows and water yields and on restoration costs to analyse the viability of investing in ecological infrastructure at the scale of major water supply areas. The analysis involved comparison of the costs and effects on water yields of catchment restoration with those of planned built infrastructure interventions designed to meet increasing water demands in the medium to long term. The cost-effectiveness analysis used the unit reference value as a measure of comparison, which is based on the discounted flows of costs and water supplied over a defined time. Restoration could supply 24% of the combined yield of planned built infrastructure interventions by 2050, and is not only cost-effective but has the added advantage of a range of co-benefits delivered by improving ecosystem health. This finding suggests that investing in ecological infrastructure should be considered ahead of new built-infrastructure projects.


  • Clearing invasive alien plants from South Africa’s main water catchment areas could increase water yields by 997 million m3 by 2050 relative to a business-as-usual approach, equivalent to a quarter of the yield gains through implementation of built infrastructure interventions planned over the same period.
  • Invasive alien plant clearing would be more cost-effective than built infrastructure interventions in all water supply systems, except one, the Orange River System.
  • These findings add to the growing body of literature that advocates for ecological infrastructure investments to secure hydrological ecosystem services.


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How to Cite

Webster, K. M., Turpie, J. K., & Letley, G. K. (2024). Viability of investing in ecological infrastructure in South Africa’s water supply areas. South African Journal of Science, 120(5/6).



Research Article