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Bonani Madikizela 

Celebrating World Wetlands Day: 2 February 2016

These ecologically-sensitive natural sponges are celebrated under the Ramsar banner “Wetlands for our future" and the theme for 2016 – "Sustainable livelihoods.” It is under this theme that the Water Research Commission (WRC), GroundTruth and WESSA will jointly celebrate our wetlands and visit some of these systems in the vicinity of Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. The banner and theme are selected to demonstrate the vital role of wetlands in the current and future wellbeing of humanity, and to promote the wise use of all sorts of wetlands.

 About the Ramsar Convention

The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, commonly known as the Ramsar Convention, is a global intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. It is the only global treaty to focus on a single ecosystem. The Ramsar Convention was agreed upon in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and became functional in 1975. South Africa is one of the founding members that signed as early as 1975. To date, 168 countries are signatories. The initial impetus for the Convention was to protect bird migratory routes, but today the mandate encompasses the full suite of biodiversity protection and includes aspects such as job creation.

What is a wetland?

The Ramsar Convention defines a wetland as any land or area that is saturated or flooded with water, either permanently or seasonally, along with all beaches and shallow coastal areas, including 6 meters into the sea. This definition covers all inland wetlands such as marshes, ponds, lakes, fens, rivers, floodplains, and swamps as well as the whole range of coastal wetlands, which includes saltwater marshes, estuaries, mangroves,lagoons and coral reefs.

In South Africa wetlands are defined in the National Water Act (Act 36 of 1998) as land that is transitional between terrestrial and aquatic systems where the water table is at or near the surface, or land that is periodically covered with shallow water or would support vegetation typically adapted to life in saturated soils. This includes springs, swamps, pans, lakes, estuaries and floodplains.

 Why bother about wetlands?

Wetlands are essential for humans because they provide freshwater and ensure our food supply. They also help to sustain the wide variety of life on our planet, protect our coastlines, and store carbon which could otherwise contribute to climate change. Wetlands are amongst the most productive ecosystems in the world. They play an important part in river catchments both directly and indirectly by contributing to flood attenuation, drought relief, water storage and soil protection, amongst others. These hardworking systems are complex and dynamic, and provide a range of benefits. The importance of wetlands and water is increased by the alternating wet and dry phases of our country’s semi-arid climate.

More than 120 000 wetlands have been mapped in South Africa and 22 of those have been declared as Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance), with the latest listed in 2014, False Bay Nature Researve. They make up about 4% of SA land surface area or just about 554 136ha. This is ongoing work, with some projects currently funded by the WRC. Several other research projects are directed at, amongst others, establishing the extent of peatlands in the country and their value for carbon sequestration, and the role of wetlands in food and craft production, medicine, and tourism, particularly from the perspective of marginalized communities. Peatlands are wetlands characterized by the accumulation of organic matter (peat) derived from dead and decaying plant material under conditions of permanent water saturation. Billions of people around the world rely on wetlands for their livelihoods, be it through fishing, cropping, or harvesting of wetland vegetation.  Wetlands also have cultural significance to many communities and provide water security – acting as natural sponges, releasing water slowly and thereby sustaining rivers downstream, even during times of drought. Wetlands therefore provide irreplaceable natural infrastructure performing essential functions such as the enhancement of water quality, erosion control, water storage, streamflow regulation, flood attenuation, and maintenance of biodiversity. They provide food, plant, water, medicinal and livelihood resources to rural communities, and play an important role in tourism, subsistence farming, grazing, environmental education and awareness.

Threats to wetlands

Despite the dependence of society and the economy on wetlands, these systems continue to be highly threatened. In South Africa, about 50% of wetlands are threatened by degradation, which is similar to the estimated 65% of the world's wetlands which are degraded. Some of the drivers of wetland degradation are as follows:

·        Invasive alien plants, which facilitate evapotranspiration, leading to drying out of wetlands

·         Erosion, due to poor land use management, results in high sediment loads deposited in wetlands

·        Developments within and around wetlands often lead to draining of wetlands, encroachment by invasive plants, and/or excessive pollution entering wetlands

·        Pollution and excess nutrients, which commonly drain into wetlands in developed countries, particularly in runoff from mining and large cities

·        Too frequent burning of wetlands leads to large areas of bare ground which increases the velocity with which water from rainfall strikes the soil and runs off, leading to soil erosion and limited infiltration of rainfall to aquifers

·        Draining of wetlands is very common where wetlands are used illegally for cropping

·        Overgrazing/trampling is very common in rural areas where communities rely on wetlands and streams for watering their livestock

·         A lack of buffer zones around wetlands and their enforcement often results in degradation of wetlands

   What can be done to protect wetlands?

  • Develop monitoring tools and programmes to maintain the health of our intact wetlands.
  • Rehabilitation and sound management of peatlands can generate multiple benefits, including poverty alleviation, combating of land degradation, maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change.
  • Continue to rehabilitate degraded wetlands, since healthier wetlands are more resilient than degraded ones.
  • Continue to identify vulnerable species and ecosystems, and plan and implement species and ecosystem action plans for recovery.
  • Prioritise and plan wetland management and restoration programmes for a changing and more variable climate; managers will have to adapt their planning to take account of these changes with the aim of maintaining, as far as possible, the delivery of ecosystem services.
  • Urgently address the additional impact of climate change on wetland species and ecosystems through climate change mitigation actions and appropriate climate change adaptation strategies.
  • Mitigation requires us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to encourage the removal of such gases already in the atmosphere.
  • Peatland conservation and rehabilitation are effective ways to maintain the peatland carbon store, with additional benefits for biodiversity, the environment and people, and sustainable development.
  • Because of the large emissions that occur from degraded peatlands, rewetting and rehabilitating them is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It is thus vital to understand and pay attention to wetlands and peatlands in South Africa and how they can form part of our response to mitigating climate change.

One of the key actions to be led by the WRC during the 2016 World Wetlands Day celebrations will be to launch various wetland management guidelines to enable better care of wetlands, rivers and estuaries.  This will take place at an international workshop to be held from 11 to 12 February 2016 in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal. The workshop will discuss tools for use by the public, or 'citizen scientists', such as rain gauges, river discharge meters, simple pathogen monitoring tools, and many more. More specifically, the WRC's recently published wetland buffer zone guidelines (forming part of the Preliminary guideline for the determination of buffer zones for rivers, wetlands and estuaries) to provide water resource practitioners with techniques for wetland determination and maintenance. The launch will see the practical demonstration of these tools at the Cascades Wetland in Pietermaritzburg, in partnership with WESSA, GroundTruth, the Departments of Water and Sanitation, Environmental Affairs, Science and Technology, and local municipalities. Amongst the delegates attending the workshop will be water practitioners from other parts of Africa who will share their experiences in wetland management.

Read the WRC wetlands factsheet .

For further information contact: Mr Bonani Madikizela, Research Manager Water -Linked Ecosystems,  email: bonanim@wrc.org.za Cell: 083 290 7238


Wetland use for sustainable livelihood
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