In Knysna, the development in the immediate basin is causing the biggest impact. Already about a quarter of the Knysna salt marsh has been destroyed by urban development such as the building of houses, canalisation, land reclamation, hardening of soils and road cuttings.
This year South Africa celebrated World Wetland Day with the rest of the world by focusing on the theme, fish for tomorrow. Focusing on the intricate link between healthy fish stocks and maintaining healthy wetlands, South Africa's deputy minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, spoke in Knysna where she also put the spotlight on estuaries and coastal development.
"Even though some South African estuaries are still in good condition, the health and ecological functioning of many are being increasingly reduced by various activities both in their catchment and in their immediate area.
Because they lie at the end of rivers, they bear the cumulative impact of activities in their catchments where increased sedimentation resulting from activities such as agriculture, timber plantations and insensitive development, and pollution from fertilisers, sewage, mining and industry, all contribute to reducing the quality of river water. In Knysna, the development in the immediate basin is causing the biggest impact.
Already about a quarter of the Knysna salt marsh has been destroyed by urban development such as the building of houses, canalisation, land reclamation, hardening of soils and road cuttings." "Estuaries and estuarine wetlands are particularly valuable for maintaining food species populations, however increasingly unsustainable development and water use reduces their ability to provide ecological services."
According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and custodian of the annual World Wetlands Day celebratory theme, one billion people rely on fish as their primary source of animal protein. In addition 75 percent of the world's commercially important fish stocks are currently overfished or being fished at their biological limit.
Dr Alan Boyd, deputy director in marine and coastal management at environmental affairs and tourism, adds that in South Africa "for the most part the fault lies simply with overharvesting, but degradation of habitat is also part of the problem." Worldwide, estuaries and coral reefs are the most threatened of all coastal ecosystems, according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.
In addition, says Barbara Weston, deputy director for Resource Directed Measures at water affairs and forestry (Dwaf) "Estuaries are the veins from the land, via rivers, to the inshore marine environment, and provide corridors for the movement of the various life stages of many fish and other aquatic species," she says. South Africa has 255 estuaries along its 3,100 km coastline, many of which support specialised wetland communities such as mangroves and salt marshes.
As part of the ongoing law reform process in the department, Deat has now initiated a public participation process to discuss the Integrated Coastal Management Bill, which will become an Act of parliament in the near future. The Bill emphasises the enormous social and economic benefits of marine and coastal resources such as wetlands.
The Bill further addresses issues of mismanagement and degradation of the marine environment and coastal resources and calls for a "National estuarine management protocol" which will ensure that Estuaries within our country are managed in a co-ordinated and efficient manner in accordance with the protocol", said Mabudafhasi According to Deat, the economic value of estuaries is estimated at R153,000/ha/year and the estuarine recreational fishing industry in South Africa is worth about R2 billion.
Working For Wetlands
Recognising the need to preserve South Africa's wetlands saw the launch of the ‘working for wetlands' programme, which is a joint initiative by the departments of environmental affairs and tourism, water affairs and forestry, and agriculture, together with partners in provincial and local government and civil society, especially the Mondi Wetlands Project. Funding for the project is channelled through the department of environmental affairs and tourism (Deat) to the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), the custodian of the programme.
According to the Sanbi website, the philosophy of the programme is underpinned by five interlinked pillars - rehabilitation interventions; partnerships at national, provincial and project level; development of appropriate capacity; communication, education and public awareness (CEPA); and research.
All rehabilitation interventions are undertaken to improve the integrity and functioning of the ecosystem, and include measures that address both causes and effects of degradation. A guiding principle is to raise awareness and influence behaviour and practices that impact on wetlands, rather than focusing exclusively on engineering solutions.
Typical activities undertaken within the projects include:
- The building of concrete, earth or gabion structures to arrest erosion, trap sediment and resaturate drained wetland areas
- Using structures and landscaping to reinstate diminished flood mitigation and water quality enhancement functions
- Plugging of artificial drainage channels
- Addressing offsite causes of degradation, such as inappropriate agricultural practices
- Re-vegetation and bio-engineering
- Eradicating invasive alien plants
- Raising awareness of wetlands among workers, landowners and the public
- Providing technical skills "Other activities carried out by the programme include wetland inventory, funding of wetland-related research, provision of assistance to sustainable use initiatives, support to the South African Wetland Action Group and provincial wetland forums, communication activities and the development of capacity through the creation of studentships, internships, mentoring and training courses."
Facts About South Africa's Wetlands:
- South Africa ‘s national average annual rainfall of 500mm falls far short of the global average of 860mm. By 2025, it will be one of fourteen African countries classified as subject to water scarcity (less than 1000m 3 per person per year)
- Wetland ecosystems, and the specialised species they support, are part of South Africa ‘s rich biodiversity. If nations' wealth were measured solely in terms of this diversity, South Africa would rank as the world's third richest country
- Many people remain directly dependent on wetlands for their water and much of their food. Wetlands also have significant cultural value and are frequently popular sites for tourism and recreation