/ 14 February 2022

Western Cape wetland gets new environmental protection

Wide Angle Landscape Image Of An Old Jetty On The Berg River Estuary On The West Coast Of South Africa
Protected: The Berg River Estuary on South Africa’s West Coast. (Dewald Kirsten)

The Berg River Estuary in the Western Cape was declared a Ramsar Site under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance ahead of World Wetlands Day, which takes place annually on 2  February, making it South Africa’s 28th wetland to get such protection.

Wetlands are the most under-threat ecosystems in South Africa, and are also under threat globally. A 2018 national biodiversity assessment found that at least 79% of the country’s wetland ecosystems were threatened, while 48% were considered “critically endangered”.

More than 70% of South Africa’s wetland ecosystem types have no protection and only 11% are well-protected. 

These strategically important areas supply water that sustains 60% of the country’s population, more than 90% of urban water users, 67% of national economic activity and 70% of irrigated agriculture, according to the department of forestry, fisheries and the environment.

Wetlands are described as nature’s kidneys because they flush out or catch contaminants before they reach water sources. They also minimise the effects of flooding by absorbing large amounts of rainfall. 

“The declaration of South Africa’s 28th Ramsar site is an indication of the importance of conserving and protecting these unique environments that are considered super ecosystems because of their contribution to the provision of water and because they provide habitats to a large variety of migratory birds, especially water birds,” said Minister of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment Barbara Creecy.

The Berg River Estuary is one of 290 estuaries in South Africa. It is the second wetland of international importance to be declared in the country in two years. 

It contributes about 60% of the estuarine habitat on the West Coast and forms part of five major wetland types in the Western Cape that form a floodplain through the main estuarine channel. 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) describes wetlands as the “Cinderellas of the conservation world”. 

“More often than not, they are overlooked, neglected and abused — and yet they provide essential eco-services for water and food security. 

“They are also among the most threatened natural areas in the world,” the WWF said. 

It has commended the restoration work underway in the Western Cape at the Papenkuils wetland near Worcester. 

The WWF said this is the largest wetland in the Breede catchment and a biodiversity hotspot with endangered Breede Alluvium Fynbos vegetation and at least seven red-listed plant species. 

This is where the ​​Merwida wine farm has set aside 600 hectares of wetland as a conservation area and has been working to clear invasive alien plants to allow the indigenous palmiet (Prionium serratum) to thrive. 

The palmiet is said to be something of a super plant in Cape river systems because it stabilises river banks, slows floods and provides shelter and food for many species.

“It makes sense to build a business with nature as the foundation. Many farming enterprises have an understanding of working with nature’s unpredictability and changes. To be resilient these businesses need to reinvest in the eco-services that they depend on — and looking after wetlands is a perfect example of this,” said Rudolph Röscher, the LandCare manager in the provincial department of agriculture in the Cape Winelands. 

The WWF said that in many parts of the world, wetlands are the lifeblood for fisheries and agriculture.

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa