02 February, 2008

World Wetlands Day - 2 February 2008

By Philippa Huntly

With more than half of South Africa’s wetlands already lost, chiefly due to unwise development and unsustainable farming practices, it is time we took our environmental laws a little more seriously.

The 2nd of February is World Wetlands Day. On this day all over the world environmental organizations try to raise awareness about wetlands, why they are important and how we can help protect those that remain.

Ramsar and World Wetlands Day
Wetlands became the focus for international concern back in 1971 when countries met at the little town of Ramsar on the edge of the Caspian sea in Iran to plan for the better protection and sustainable use of the world’s rapidly disappearing wetlands that were being lost to ill-considered development, pollution, forestry, drainage and overexploitation. South Africa is a signatory to the Ramsar convention and has 16 Ramsar sites, including those in the Western Cape - De Hoop Vlei, De Mond State Forest, Langebaan and Verlorenvlei.

World Wetlands Day is now celebrated as an annual event in recognition of the signing of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands on 2 February 1971. It has gained momentum in recent years with a growing awareness of the urgency of the environmental crisis we face. Many environmental groups, government agencies, schools and concerned citizens use this day, and the whole of February, as an opportunity to raise public awareness, and remind decision makers, of the value of wetlands. Each year the Ramsar theme changes. This year it is “Healthy wetlands, healthy people” – meaning quite literally that healthy, functioning wetlands give direct benefits to people.

What are Wetlands
Wetlands, or vleis are an ecosystem type that can vary greatly. There are numerous formal definitions. The Ramsar Convention defines wetlands as: “areas of marsh, fen, peatlands or water, whether natural or artificial, permanent or temporary, with water that is static or flowing, fresh, brackish or salt, including areas of marine water the depth of which at low tide does not exceed six meters”.
There are many different kinds of wetlands, such as estuarine, delta, riverine, peatlands and mountain seeps. There are also many different names for wetlands such as vlei, marsh, fen, bog and pan. Sometimes the dominance of one kind of plant can define a wetland, such as Palmiet wetlands.

Palmiet Wetlands and floods in the Southern Cape
In the Southern Cape beautiful Palmiet wetlands used to be prevalent, however they are now highly threatened. Palmiet is a large plant, growing up to 2,5 m tall when undisturbed, with an even deeper root system designed to hold soil and to withstand flooding. In doing so it mitigates the effects of flooding, protecting the whole river system and by default any human built infrastructure on or close to floodplains. Take it away and pay the price, as shown in the post flooding photographs of the Duivenhoks River in the Southern Cape.

Hannes Muller of LandCare, a division of the Department of Agriculture, works constantly with farmers in the Southern Cape and Klein Karoo. Hannes and his colleagues are not only trying to stop the destruction of wetlands due to poor farming practices, but are also busy with wetland rehabilitation as well as alien clearing. Hannes says it is estimated that “over two thirds of the Palmiet wetlands in the Southern Cape have been completely destroyed, mostly due to unsustainable farming practices, as well as various types of unwise development. A lot of the destruction is at the hands of land owners who often know their actions are harmful and/or against the law”.

Floods have plagued the Southern Cape in recent years and the natural sponge effect that wetlands provide helps to mitigate the effects of flooding. Take the wetlands out of the river systems and the intensity of floods is increased hugely, wiping out agriculture, homes and other infrastructure, as in the town and rural area of Heidelberg when the Duivenhoks River floods. Some landowners upstream in the Duivenhoks system have rooted out Palmiet, canalized sections of the river, dug out peat beds (estimated to be between 7.5 and 10 000 years old) and the results are felt throughout the entire system. Mistakes or transgressions like these are made everywhere, and not only by private landowners and farmers, but also by Government Departments and Local Government. As with many environmental issues, those doing the most damage, often through ignorance, are not always the ones to pay the price.

Threats to Wetlands
Aside from unsustainable agriculture, unwise development is a major threat to wetlands. In many cases this means the draining, filling in and building on wetland sites. This not only kills the specific wetland system that has been built on but also has knock-on effects in the whole ecosystem. Invasion by alien plants is another major threat to wetlands. In the Western Cape many of our remaining wetlands are infested with alien plants, the most common being the Australian Acacias and Eucalyptus, Hyacinth and Parrots Feather. One of the aims of Working for Wetlands is to remove alien invasive plants and control their re-growth in an attempt to restore the proper functioning of wetlands.

Western Cape Wetlands Forum and Working for Wetlands
When the Working for Water Programme was launched into the public works sector in 1995, the way was cleared for creative thinking around the links between environmental management and social development. The Working for Wetlands Programme followed a few years later, and job creation projects that tackled wetland restoration and rehabilitation were initiated around the country. In order to provide the space for discussion amongst the different stakeholder groups concerned with wetlands, and to receive guidance for the prioritization of wetlands to be restored, a network of wetland forums was nurtured into being around the country by Working for Wetlands.

In the Western Cape, this process took hold in 2002, and over the past 5 years the Western Cape Wetlands Forum has built a comprehensive membership ranging from public sector managers and policy makers, through the wetland research community and NGOs to practitioners engaged in conservation and rehabilitation of wetlands. Included in the objectives of the Forum are: the promotion, amongst all sectors of society, of awareness and understanding of wetlands, their roles as part of both the natural and human environments, and the factors that affect them. Dr George Davis of the South African National Biodiversity Institute, and current chair of the Forum, believes that the breadth of the membership is important for articulating and establishing the long-term objectives of wetland conservation. “We have recently established an explorative relationship with the Simonsvlei Winery in Klapmuts, who are interested in protecting and rehabilitating a piece of wetland alongside the N1. In synch with similar initiatives such as ‘biodiversity and wine’, we are hoping to encourage the process of ‘mainstreaming’ wetland appreciation and conservation into the mindset of South Africans who have had little exposure to both the biodiversity heritage that is linked to our wetlands, as well as to the critical ecosystem services that they provide, such as groundwater recharge, river health, flood attenuation, and a reliable water supply. The more we can involve the commercial sector in this type of approach, the better our chances of sustaining our total environment. The Wetlands Forum is a valuable tool in this process”.

Naturally it makes sense that it is in our collective interest to look after those remaining wetlands.

Photographs by Japie Buckle, Working for Wetlands

1. Homes damaged in Heidelberg after the flooding of the Duivenhoks River.
Coming soon

2. Pristine Palmiet wetlands remain intact after a flood, thereby protecting the whole river system from erosion.

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