In 1996 it was estimated that more than half of South Africa's wetlands had disappeared. Wetlands are one of the planet's most productive ecosystems. The South African Water Act defines a wetland as 'land which is transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems, where the water table is usually at or near the surface or the land is periodically covered with shallow water, and which land in normal circumstances supports or would support vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soil'.
- Wetlands occur where the movement of water is slowed down or obstructed by some geographical feature (like very flat land), or by certain rock types. This makes the soil in the area to be temporarily, seasonally or permanently wet
- Wetlands regulate water flow and can reduce the severity of both floods and droughts. They also purify water
- Wetlands also provide areas where water can penetrate the earth's surface, helping raise the water table below ground. Without this all boreholes would soon run dry
- Wetlands are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, and so are places of high biodiversity
- Wetlands provide many social benefits including grazing land, raw materials such as reeds for craftwork, valuable fisheries, hunting grounds for waterbirds, as well as being a source of beautiful scenery
- Wetlands are damaged if they are drained to grow crops and if overgrazed or burnt incorrectly
- Wetlands help prevent erosion, so a damaged wetland will rapidly erode and cause further harm to the wetland. This damage often causes rivers to fill up with silt
- A wetland is considered to be of international importance and worthy of being declared a Ramsar site if it is a rare example of a particular kind of wetland in any given area
The name Ramsar comes from a landmark convention that was held in Ramsar, Iran in 1971 where over 100 nations signed an agreement to protect important wetland areas. There are now 141 contracting parties to the convention. SANParks is committed to conserving and restoring all wetlands under their jurisdiction, as well as considering rehabilitation of wetlands outside the parks that impact of any national park. SANParks has received funding, based on a business plan, from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism for wetland rehabilitation. It is provided over a three-year cycle. The cycle ends in 2007.
Almost R7 million is earmarked for Kruger, Agulhas and Golden Gate National Parks. The program is providing jobs for 103 previously disadvantaged people who live near the parks. The money in this cycle will be spent on removing dam walls, plugging drainage furrows, stabilising dongas and restoring water ways by means of culverts. SANParks are working towards a wetland inventory which will prioritise the condition of wetlands. Wetlands inside national parks are sometimes damaged by external factors, such as flooding and roads.
The only Ramsar rated wetland site currently in SANParks is the Wilderness Lakes area in the Southern Cape. SANParks is hoping that the Maybeni Pan area in the far north of Kruger may become a Ramsar site. As alien plants are often a problem in wetlands, the Invasive Species Control Unit is managing the DEAT funded wetland projects.