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'.
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.