The South African National Water Act (Act no. 36 of 1998) 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”. This definition makes special reference to “land in normal circumstances” to account for and acknowledge those undervalued wetland systems that have been developed, or degraded for economic or social benefit, but still have the potential to be rehabilitated to their near-natural condition. The recognition of the natural potential of a healthy wetland on a national scale, but the large-scale degradation of these systems within our country demonstrates that there is a misalignment between policy and implementation. To rectify this disassociation, it will be imperative for local, regional and national persons to understand the value of a health wetland and also come to the realisation that their aesthetic appeal improving our living environments.
The majority of the South African population view wetlands as water logged, isolated and misused bodies of land that could be transformed into other land use practices of higher value. According to the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA) Working for Wetlands (WWW) programme, approximately 60% of South Africa’s wetlands have been degraded or transformed as a result of urbanization and land use change. This excessive loss of health wetland systems within our country is outrageous when you consider the Ecosystem Services (ESS) that are supplied to both the natural and anthropogenic environments.
The direct values that each wetland has the potential to supply the surrounding communities includes; livestock grazing, fisheries and hunting, fibre for construction and handcraft, water supply and aesthetic appeal. These may seem irrelevant to most of us, but when you consider the fact that humans consume 19kg of fish on average per annum and the majority of commercial fish depend on coastal wetlands for a portion of their lifecycle it puts it in perspective (RAMSAR, 2018). Additionally, wetlands are saturated for longer periods of time as a result of their high carbon content and unique hydrological flow regimes through the sometimes dense hydrophytic vegetation. This allows them to hold and filter freshwater for extended periods of time slowly releasing purified water into downstream systems, which may be abstracted for our drinking purposes.
Wetlands also have the potential to provide services that are of a more indirect value to the natural and anthropogenic environments, such as; flood reduction, streamflow regulation, groundwater recharge, stormwater runoff control and discharge, water purification, chemical cycling, erosion control and the maintenance of faunal and floral biodiversity. Without wetlands providing the abovementioned direct and indirect services our nation may not have had the capacity to supply numerous basic human needs, such as the most essential being water and food, to our exponentially increasing human population.
Various efforts have been made by the DEA and national research bodies to highlight priority wetland areas that should be conserved at all cost. One such strategy is the identification and desktop delineation of Freshwater Priority Areas (FEPAs) to create the National Freshwater Priority Areas (NFPEA) database, which includes wetland, estuarine and river systems on a national scale. The aims of the NFEPA programme are to; 1) identify FEPAs that have the potential to meet national biodiversity goals for freshwater ecosystems, and 2) develop a basis for enabling effective implementation of measures to protect FEPAs (Driver et al., 2011). This strategy is in line with the objectives stipulated within the National Water Act (NWA) (Act no. 36 of 1998), the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (NEM:BA) (Act no. 10 of 2004) and the National Environmental Management Act (NEMA) (Act no. 107 of 1998).
Although programmes such as the NFEPA database have been created and rolled out nationwide, the legislated requirement for the delineation, baseline assessment, risk evaluation and identification of mitigation and/or rehabilitation measures for each impacted watercourse (including wetlands) pertaining to a proposed development must be implemented at a local scale. Once the aforementioned actions have been correctly conducted by a suitably qualified professional and the proposed development constructed, the effective rehabilitation and monitoring of the impacted watercourses must be implemented to ensure that the current gap between the pre-construction and rehabilitation phases is bridged. In doing so, alignment between our well-developed national policies and legislated guidelines relating to the conservation and rehabilitation of our nations freshwater ecosystems may be aligned with the activities and procedures that take place on-site.
Considering the above and in anticipation for World Wetland Day on the 2nd February 2019, ENVASS urges you as the reader to do what you can to try and bridge the gap and conserve our nation’s wetlands and rivers. Afterall, the longevity of South Africa’s terrestrial and aquatic environments will be essential for the prosperity of future generation to come.
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