Resuscitating the wetlands

The exploitation and damage done to human beings by apartheid is clearly documented, but the long-term damage wrought on the environment is not as readily recognised.

For over 40 years the Orange river estuary, home to a unique wetlands system, was degraded by the effects of upstream farming and a road built by mining companies.

But following the restitution of land to the Richtersveld community the local community is getting involved to save this rare natural resource.

About 40 years ago diamond miners in Alexander Bay built a road across the wetlands at the mouth of the Orange river, allowing them to access their favourite fishing spot with ease. The road disrupted the flow of water in the wetlands, increasing the salinity of the soil and destroying the natural vegetation, which, in turn, impacted on the migratory birds that call the estuary home.

Two large dams built upstream have also had a significant impact on the river mouth. Mark Anderson, who works for the Northern Cape department of tourism, conservation and environment, says the river mouth would naturally close up in the dry season, causing back flooding on to the wetlands.

The dams changed the river from a seasonal flow to a more constant flow, preventing the river mouth from closing. “It’s been 10 or 11 years since the mouth closed,” says Anderson.

The river mouth was designated a Ramsar site in 1991, meaning it was recognised as a unique wetlands system, but its steady deterioration led to it being placed on the Montreux Record, a blacklist for ecological sites, in 1995.

However, help is at hand as the national and provinical governments, in conjunction with the Richtersveld community, have begun work to restore the estuary and wetland to their former glory. A new rehabilitation project aims to rejuvenate the Orange river estuary and is seen as key to developing tourism and creating sustainable livelihoods in the area.

“The idea is to ensure long-term sustainability of tourism,” says Japie Buckle of the Working for Wetlands project of the South African National Biodiversity Institute. “The work here is particularly significant, given that once the land claim is settled the wetland will fall under the joint jurisdiction of the Northern Cape province and the Richtersveld community.”

The project, which was launched in July last year, employs 47 people from Alexander Bay and the neighbouring towns of Lekker sing, Kuboes and Sanddrift to dig breaches in the miners’ road. The breaches allowed fresh water from floods in February and April to flow into the wetlands for the first time in years and the impact of the wetlands is clearly evident. Vast sections are flooded with water and large patches of bright green reeds and yellow flowers are dotted all over.

“I am very proud of this project,” says Gert Cloete, one of the team leaders. “When this project started you should have seen the wetland and now look at it,” he says gesturing at the new vegetation that sprouted after the floods. “Now that we have opened up some gaps in the road and the river is flowing through, you can see the changes. To know that we have helped to fix this wetland makes us very excited.”

Cloete says the jobs that the rehabilitation project is creating are very important as most of the people contracted were previously unemployed, in an area where work is very hard to come by. Mining is the largest employer but this is steadily declining as mines close. A few people are involved in commercial farming while the majority survive by subsistence farming. Maciej Hraber of EcoAfrica, the project implementing agent for Working for Wetlands, says more than 50% of households in the area survive on about R400 a week. Hraber says that while 47 jobs may sound insignificant, in an area with such rampant unemployment every job is a bonus. “It isn’t going to save the whole Richtersveld,” says Hraber, “but it is significant none the less.”

Cloete says that tourism is the only answer to creating jobs in the Richtersveld. “It is very important and it must come,” he says. “There are very beautiful birds here and people will come to see them if we fix the wetlands.”

Lloyd Gedye

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