AWARD’s RESILIM-Olifants Programme focuses on resilience-building in the transboundary Olifants River Basin, shared between South Africa and Mozambique. The Olifants is the largest contributor of water to the Limpopo Basin

Limpopo River Basin

which is also the focus area for our sister programme, RESILIM-B also known as Resilience in the Limpopo Basin Programme.
Through resilience-building actions and plans, RESILIM-O seeks to improve the health of key aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems as the basis for sustainable livelihoods, especially of the most vulnerable. We adopt a collaborative, systemic approach to explore how people may adapt to climate change and other change factors through increased resilience of people and ecosystems. Based on our experiences in action-research and development, we use innovative and responsive systemic, social learning approaches to understand, plan, act, reflect and learn with stakeholders. We effectively combine evidence-based information with the knowledge and lived experiences of residents and stakeholders.

Overarching Goal

To reduce vulnerability to climate change through building improved transboundary water and biodiversity governance and management of the Olifants Basin

The Olifants River Catchment in a nutshell

The RESILIM-Olifants program focuses specifically on the transboundary Olifants River Catchment which forms part of the even-wider Limpopo River Basin. The Olifants River Catchment, or ORC, is of particular concern because of the wide-scale threats to biodiversity and the ecosystem services that support peoples’ livelihoods. Much of our work in Phase I focused on a basin-wide assessment which is summarized below as background to the project-specific work.

From both an aquatic and terrestrial perspective the Olifants River Catchment is a rich and diverse landscape. It is home to areas of endemism and high biodiversity, particularly along the Drakensberg Escarpment which includes the Blyde and Legalameetse Nature Reserves and some tributaries of the Olifants. The Olifants River flows into the Limpopo River and the Maputoland-Tongoland Ecoregion, an area of rich biodiversity and endemism which includes the Limpopo River estuary. Currently, the Olifants River is the only tributary that sustains flows of the Limpopo River in the dry season.

A changing landscape

In 2005 the Olifants River ceased flowing for a number of days in 2005, prompting widespread concern and calls for an integrated focus on all of the easterly-flowing rivers of the Lowveld of South Africa. Despite the enabling legislative framework for water reform in South Africa introduced in 1998, most rivers in this catchment continue to degrade in both quality and quantity.

Given that these rivers form part of international systems, the implications are of wider significance than for South Africa alone. Indeed, the Olifants Catchment is a particular concern given that it is the largest contributor of flows to the transboundary Limpopo River. We estimate that flows into Mozambique support the livelihoods of between 6000 and 10 000 small-scale farmers and the critical mangroves of the Zongoene estuary which experiences saltwater intrusion and salinization due to reduced flows and declining mangroves.

Large areas of the Catchment have been substantially modified and the upper catchment is almost totally transformed through agriculture and mining with the latter increasing significantly in the last decade even across former agricultural areas (link Figure below)). A number of ecosystems are considered either critically endangered or endangered and many more are vulnerable. In Mozambique, the estuarine area is classified as a National Maritime Ecosystem Priority area. Although there are substantial areas of natural landcover especially in the Lowveld along the escarpment and Blyde River Catchments many of these are also threatened by a range of drivers including mining, urbanization, afforestation and invasive alien plants. Despite the wide range of habitat types in the grassland and savanna biomes climate change is likely to see a major transformation of the already threatened grasslands to savannas.

Equally, the mainstem of the Olifants River is regarded as critically endangered from its source to the protected areas in the Lowveld. Water quality is a major issue for the catchment. Declining water quality and decreased flows threaten aquatic systems along the entire Olifants River within South Africa and to the Xai Xai estuary in Mozambique. Almost all westerly-flowing rivers in the high and middle-veld are critically endangered. Intact river systems are limited to the Blyde and some tributaries of the Steelpoort and the lower Olifants.

With over 600 former or existing mines (coal and platinum in particular), impacts are felt in both the terrestrial and aquatic systems and on human livelihoods. The discharge effluent from many of the 100 plus waste-water treatment works (public and private: AWARD data), many of which are struggling to meet national standards, impacts on the aquatic systems downstream and again on peoples’ livelihoods.

Indeed AWARD’s work suggests that the most vulnerable livelihoods in terms of the direct dependencies on ecosystem services are in the former homelands which cover about half of the ORC. AWARD has identified a number of integrated biodiversity areas which track the mainstem Olifants River (after Loskop Dam) and include the Steelpoort and Blyde Catchment and the swathe of land across the escarpment into the Lowveld (Figure 1). Key elements contributing to the selection of these areas include exceptionally high values of diversity at multiple levels of biodiversity, high levels of endemism, the presence of threatened ecosystems, larger contiguous areas of intact habitats, and under-protected habitat types.

through the adoption of science-based strategies that enhance the resilience of its people and ecosystems through systemic and social learning approaches.

Our orientation: Social learning and systems thinking

AWARD specifically holds a systemic, social learning framework at the core of its approach. This is because we posit that the degradation and vulnerabilities facing the ORC reflect the emergence of complex outcomes from equally complex, dynamic and often unpredictable set of relationships across the socio-ecological system (SES). These may be socio-political, technical, economic or environmental in nature and can vary in space and time.

We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.

Albert Einstein

German-born theoretical physicist

Embracing a systemic approach to solving problems requires a fundamental shift from the reductionist approaches that have dominated Western thought for centuries, towards more holistic and participatory approaches that take into account the dynamic and unpredictable nature of complex systems. These new approaches need to be flexible and responsive to new understanding and change within the system.In recognition of the interconnectedness of problems across different areas of interests (food, water, land, livelihoods, climate and so on) and across space and time, AWARD explicitly adopted a systemic, social learning orientation. Our “integrated approaches” for collaborative action recognize that so-called ‘social’ and ecological systems cannot be separated but should rather be seen as one, interacting and complex socio-ecological system (or SES).

To a large extent, systemic approaches to solving complex environmental and social problems still need to be “worked out” in practice, representing AWARDs key areas of innovation. We are attempting to fully engage with what this means, not only for our ways of working, but also our ways of thinking, our ways of interacting with stakeholders, our internal governance and our monitoring and evaluation obligations.

Embedded within our practice are the hallmarks of transformative social learning, or learning for transformation. We explicitly design collaborative process that encourage people to confront and de-construct their ways of understanding so as to open up the space for new, collective and transformative understandings. This means thinking beyond one’s own realities and context into broader contexts – an approach that seeks to develop an identity with “the place we live in” (OurOlifants).

Some key concepts:

Systems thinking for understanding complex systems

Systems thinking concerns an understanding of a ‘system’ by examining the linkages and interactions between the components that comprise the defined system. For the most part a ‘system’ is a socially constructed entity. In other words, systems do not exist as absolute entities (since one system is part of another) so that deciding what makes your ‘system’ of interest - or ‘bounding’ your system - is a key step in systems approaches (e.g. to work at a catchment, sub-catchment, district, or village level). Systems approaches are used in a wide variety of disciplines to understand the relationships in complex systems. Peter Senge used this as the basis for a “learning organisation” (see MERL) in which organisations learn continuously so as to remain competitive.

Using collaborative systems thinking in practice, AWARD facilitates stakeholders to visualize linkages, and appreciate that invariably, multiple factors influence outcomes that they may previously have seen as simplistic cause-effect linkages. This also reveals flawed “killer assumptions” they may have made. We seek to support them pick out points of vulnerability and risk, and suggest points of leverage to address these, as well as windows of opportunity - when acting might make a difference.

Social learning and collective action

One of the most influential learning theories is that of Social Learning, formulated by Albert Bandura. It can be useful in explain how people learn new things and develop new behaviours as part of a social process (where peers are important) rather than just by conditioning or reinforcement (part of the view proposed by Skinner). He noted that the state of mind is crucial to how learning takes place where ‘internal’ reward (a positive experience) is crucial. Bandura also highlighted that not all learning results in a change in behavior. Additional work such as that of Arjen Wals suggests important ‘stages’ in the process of learning where one critically analyses ones own beliefs, norms and values (deconstruction), confronts those of others, and makes new meanings (reconstruction).

As such this has influenced AWARD’s way of working significantly so that we are attentive to processes that foster a ‘safe’ learning space where people participate with each other to make new ideas or meanings. Issues of sustainability and practices for sustainable futures often require that people engage in ‘meaning-making’ collectively. In most complex problem-solving issues such as those around natural resources management, require action beyond the individual, making collective action a central component.

Resilience: What does this mean?

The dictionary defines resilience as an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change and in systems thinking, the meaning is similar. Drawing on work of various people, the Resilience Alliance adopts a definition of resilience as the capacity of a social-ecological system to absorb or withstand perturbations and other stressors such that the system remains within the same regime, essentially maintaining its structure and functions. It describes the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization, learning and adaptation.

Guidelines to keep in mind when building resilience:

(from the Resilience Alliance)

  • Diversity: Promoting a sensible amount of required diversity, without necessarily feeling that overlapping of functions is undesirable (e.g. if NGOs and government offer an extension service and one of these sources fails to deliver, the system can remain resilient)
  • Connectivity: Promoting a sensible amount of connectivity. For example, if there are possibilities for adequate inflow of new information into an otherwise isolated system, it may better deal with change.
  • Feedbacks: must be recognised and promoted when appropriate. This means ensuring that if things start going wrong there are feedbacks for corrective action; or in positive situations, they continue to do so. Remembering that slow variables cause lags is important since these can lead to unexpected impacts. For instance a decline in educational quality often takes place over decades, and can feed into debilitating long-term feedback.
  • Complexity of systems: Helping people understand that the world around us behaves in a complex manner which, with due thought and collaboration, can be positively influenced.
  • Learning: Promoting quality learning at all levels in a way that encourages the discussion of options, experimentation and mistakes – all important components of such learning.
  • Participtation:Promoting appropriate levels of participation, also across dissenting boundaries or “siloes”.
  • Polycentric governance: Accepting that a healthy multi-level network of governance (including not only government) is required to make or keep complex systems resilient.

Our programmatic work

The RESILIM-O program has been organized according to four central themes, namely: (1) integration and capacity development, (2) integrated water resources management, (3) biodiversity conservation, and (4) learning for resilience


. The initial two-year period (Phase 1) has been spent conducting site-based and collaborative action research to build a comprehensive systemic understanding from the existing fragmented body of knowledge.

In Phase 2 from 2016, ongoing learning is being combined with implementation of key activities identified in the framework. These actions include piloting, testing and replication of interventions. However, for some of the work “implementation” is so thoroughly integrated with planning and testing that it cannot be viewed as a separate activity.

Under each thematic area, we have a number of projects

Resilm-O thematic areas and their projects

Systemic, collaborative planning & action for resilience of ecosystems and associated livelihoods through enhanced capacity

Land-use planning

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Land-use planning for the Moletele area

Civil Society Indabas

The RESILIM O project aims to strengthen and mobilise the Civil Society sector in the Olifants Catchment by building resilience through training, communication and a su...READ MORE 

RESILIM-O intern programmes

A constant challenge identified in Phase I of the RESLIM-O project was the scarcity of skilled personnel in the climate change, water and biodiversity sectors. There wa...READ MORE 

Water Clincs

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Water security and water resources protection for transboundary IWRM

Support for Governance

Without a viable governance system, achieving water resources protection within Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) will not be possible. Currently the main in...READ MORE 


As noted, AWARD supports the development of holistic basin-wide management for the Olifants River Catchment. Ensuring that this is embedded within an adaptive managemen...READ MORE 

Building custodianship

The South African National Water Act (1998) devolves resource management to the lowest level and this invites stakeholders to be involved with water resources protectio...READ MORE 

Biodiversity conservation and protection of high priority ecosystems

Blyde Ecosystem Restoration & NRMP support project

The Blyde and Klaserie Catchments are renowned for their biodiversity and protection of key watersheds and yet the continued degradation of ecosystems through invasion ...READ MORE 

Legalameetse co-management support project

Protected areas (PAs) on state, communal and private land play an important role in safeguarding high priority biodiversity areas and ecosystems in the ORC. The majorit...READ MORE 

GeoTerra- agric scoping

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Climate change adaptation

Integrating climate change (CC) into Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR)

The Integration of climate change into planning and implementation of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) is a key strategy because climate change can lead to more frequent a...READ MORE 

Dialogues for climate change literacy and adaptation (DICLAD)

In 2016 AWARD invested considerable effort in engaging an extensive number of stakeholders at provincial and national forums regarding the potential impacts of climate ...READ MORE 

Collaborative exploration of water resources protection (SES)

Climate change will render potentially very different trajectories to those experienced today. Nonetheless planning for different scenarios of climate change is notorio...READ MORE 


As outlined in the National Water Resources Strategy 2 of DWS, a key strategy for climate change adaptation within the water sector is that of Water Conservation and De...READ MORE 


Monitoring, Evaluating, Reporting and Learning (MERL)

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Media and Communications

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which are implemented by AWARD or in collaboration with consultants and grantees. These cover a wide range of resilience-building initiatives (link RSI) including capacity development through an internship programme and water clinics for civil society, support for land-use planning and restoration in critical area, support for water resource government and management, strengthening custodianship through collaboration and citizen science, and support for park management in restituted areas. We also focus on numerous activities related to climate-change adaptation which is being embedded in most of the afore-mentioned work and in support for small-scale agriculture. This work is supported by a various participatory and systemic approaches and a reflexive and learning M&E system known as MERL.

Resilm-O thematic areas

Resilience Support Initiatives

As part of the programmatic design, we have a number of Resilience Support Initiatives (RSI) that aim to institutionalise resilience-building in the region. These have ...READ MORE 

Integrated Water Resoruces Management

Water resources underpin every part of peoples’ livelihoods through the goods and services that are provided to society and yet is still not given the profile that su...READ MORE 

Biodiversity conservation and protection

The Blyde and Klaserie Catchments are renowned for their biodiversity and protection of key watersheds and yet the continued degradation of ecosystems through invasion ...READ MORE 

Climate change adaptation

The local climate is heating up: Research suggests that in South Africa, there has been an increase in mean annual and maximum temperatures. In addition, the frequency ...READ MORE 

Organisational Learning

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Media and Communication

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