/ 15 May 2004

How wetlands will save SA’s water supply

As South Africa’s new government braces itself for the task of extending clean water supplies to more people, environmentalists are warning there may soon be little water to distribute if conservation efforts are not stepped up.

They believe the country will run out of water by 2030 unless current water resources are better maintained. A key part of this challenge involves reclaiming areas known as wetlands.

Wetlands act as sponges in preventing the evaporation and flow of water, especially during summer. Since vegetation covers wetlands, there is little fear about the loss of water through evaporation.

Wetlands also play the crucial role of natural filters, purifying water by trapping pollutants, bacteria and viruses that cause diseases like diarrhoea and dysentery.

According to John Dini of the National Botanical Institute of South Africa, between 35% and 60% of South Africa’s wetlands — which include springs, marshes and swamps — have been destroyed over the past 40 years.

”Historically wetlands were perceived as [having] no value. They were drained for agriculture, housing development or building dams,” he says.

The provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape, Mpumulanga and Limpopo were especially hard hit by this ill-informed approach to development as a result of agricultural activities and siltation caused by erosion of overgrazed lands. These provinces are now receiving attention from the government and environmental groups.

”Since 2000, we have recovered 50 000ha — the size of about 100 000 soccer pitches — of wetlands,” says Dini.

Between 2000 and 2004, the government allocated about R108-million to rehabilitate the wetlands under a poverty-alleviation initiative.

”Under the programme, we employ 1 000 people per annum. Of the total, 60% must be women, 20% young people, 1% disabled people, and so forth. The programme targets disadvantaged people,” says Dini.

The rehabilitation work includes the blocking of canals that were originally dug to dry out the wetlands, so the water can spread into previously dried-out wetlands. Once done, the vegetation grows back.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a Swiss-based NGO that is helping to reclaim the wetlands, about 65% of South Africa receives an average of less than 500mm of rain a year — making it a water-scarce country.

By 2025 the country’s water requirements will outstrip supply unless urgent steps are taken to manage this resource in a more sustainable manner, the WWF adds.

According to the NGO, there are already problems of supply and quality regarding water provision, with an estimated eight million South Africans currently having no access to potable water.

A comparable figure was given by South African President Thabo Mbeki during an address to parliament in February.

”After the demise of apartheid in 1994, 16-million people had no access to clean water. By 2004 nine million additional people now have access to clean water,” he told legislators.

Decades of racial segregation in South Africa ensured that most of the country’s majority blacks did not benefit from the provision of basic services such as water and electricity. The problem is especially severe in rural areas where many blacks live — most of them very poor.

About half the country’s 45-million citizens live below the national poverty line of $52 a month, John Ohiorhenuan, the United Nations Development Programme’s representative in South Africa, said at the May 5 launch of the South Africa Human Development Report 2003.

There are also fears that global warming will add to the problems affecting wetlands.

”If global warming intensifies, South Africa is going to be dry,” Geoff Cowan, Deputy Director of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, said in a telephone interview.

South Africa’s annual population growth rate of 1,35% is also a matter of concern.

”There will be many people and not enough water for everyone,” Cowan notes.

South Africa is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that provides a framework for cooperation on the conservation of wetlands. Pretoria ratified the treaty in 1975, two years after signing it in the Iranian city of the same name.

The convention encompasses more than 1 000 wetland sites around the globe, or about 78-million hectares of territory.

Sixteen sites in South Africa have, in terms of the convention, been designated as wetlands of international importance. These wetlands are considered important because of their ecological and hydrological values, and their importance for conserving biological diversity.

One of the wetlands, De Mond State Forest — which was designated in 1986 — is situated in the Western Cape province, at the estuary of the Heuningnes River that extends about 12km across the flat coastal plain of the Zoetendals Vallei farm area before breaking out to sea through a double dune ridge, according to a South African briefing document on wetlands.

The wetlands, designated a Ramsar site, is one of the few confirmed South African breeding sites of the Damara tern. This species is endemic to Southern Africa, is listed as rare and vulnerable and is possibly the rarest resident sea bird in South Africa, says the document.

”Other breeding birds include African black oystercatcher, blue crane, Kittlitz’s plover and Egyptian goose. As the most southerly estuary in Africa, the site is scientifically important for species’ distribution extremities, including the southernmost records of tropical species like the ginger prawn, giant mud crab and a gastropod,” according to the document.

South Africa’s obligations under Ramsar include the promotion of the wise use of all wetlands.

Local people benefit directly from wetlands products such as fish, rice and timber or indirectly from their functions such as flood control, erosion control and groundwater recharge. Wetlands are also useful for recreational activities such as game viewing and fishing.

Environmentalists say more money is needed for rehabilitating the wetlands, but the government only gives a paltry R40-million a year for this purpose. — Sapa-IPS